Time for the neocons to admit that the Iraq war was wrong from the start

By Matthew Parris (THE TIMES, 21/10/06):

HARK — CAN YOU hear it? Borne on the wind, can you hear the sounds of construction — of hammers hammering and woodsaws sawing? And do you detect a note of panic? I do. The good ship Neocon is going down. She has struck the Iraqi rocks, the engine room is awash, and on the deck in anxious pursuit of something to float them away is a curious assembly.

Her Majesty’s Brigade of Neocon Columnists and Leader Writers mingles with much of the elite of British politics. The new Labour Cabinet and its courtiers and most of the Opposition’s front bench rub shoulders with Fleet Street’s finest. Is that David Aaronovitch I see, hammer in hand? Jack Straw is handing him the nails. There’s Michael Gove scribbling notes while Danny Finkelstein rips a blank sheet from a discarded do-it-yourself regime change manual, and ponders a hastily sketched design. Willie Shawcross has the saw and Tim Hames and Margaret Beckett are ripping planks from the deck. Gordon Brown skulks behind the mast as those unlikely bedfellows, Matthew d’Ancona, of The Spectator, and Johann Hari, of The Independent, assemble what timber they can find.

They are building a lifeboat for their reputations. The task is urgent. It is no small thing to find oneself on the wrong side of an argument when the debate is about the biggest disaster in British foreign policy since Suez; no small thing to have handed Iran a final, undreamt-of victory in an Iran-Iraq war that we thought had ended in the 1980s; no small thing to have lost Britain her credit in half the world; no small thing — in the name of Atlanticism — to have shackled our own good name to a doomed US presidency and crazed foreign-policy adventure that the next political generation in America will remember only with an embarrassed shudder.

It is no small thing to have embellished the philosophy, found the prose and made the case for the most almighty cock-up in politics that we are ever likely to witness. They meant for the best, these politicians, dreamers and writers. They didn’t think it would end like this. But it has: more killed than even Saddam could boast, and nothing to show for it but an exhausted British Army and the global energising of violent Islamism on a scale of which Osama bin Laden never dreamt.

Our British neocons have invested heavily in this ill-fated craft, and the wreck is total. How shall they be saved? Never fear. They’ve been working on the elements of a rescue plan. By Christmas all will be singing from the same sheet. All together, now, warrior-columnists and soon-to-be-former Cabinet ministers: one, two three . . .

“The principle was good but the Americans screwed up the execution.”

Oh diddums, guys. Damned awful luck. You had this fantastic plan for invading a foreign country and harnessing a grateful populace behind your ideas for rebuilding an Arab nation along better lines — and then along come the Americans and make a mess of it. Now why in Heaven’s name would they do a thing that? Vandals.

Funny, because I don’t quite recall most of you saying it at the time — some of you wrote columns and some of you delivered speeches declaring that Iraq was making giant strides; most of you blamed the difficulties on “Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters”, and some of you actually visited and returned rejoicing at the progress — but let’s overlook that. Let’s for the sake of argument grant that you worried from the start that the US just didn’t have the hang of this nation-building business. Now, you declare, we know that’s the reason the whole strategy hit the rocks.

Crap. The strategy failed because of one big, bad idea at its very root. Your idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that.

We were not invited. We had no mandate. There were no “good” Iraqis to hand over to. We had nothing to latch on to, no legitimacy. It wasn’t a question of being tactful, respectful, munificent, or handing sweets to children. We were impostors, and that is all.

So now the liferaft: “Tut-tut, no post-invasion strategy.” Well there certainly was a post-invasion strategy, and just because it didn’t work does not mean a different strategy would have made the difference. The post- invasion strategy was minimalist, based on the belief that Iraqis had the human and financial resources to set up their own administration without too much delay, if given full security back-up.

It didn’t happen. But look at two different strategies that armchair neo- imperialists are now saying would “of course” have done the trick if only the stupid Americans had realised it. First there is what is now said to have been Colin Powell’s preference: to smother the country with troops and bulldozers and bricklayers and engineers. In fact, in the early months huge reconstruction was attempted, much was spent — and more than 100,000 troops is hardly derisory as a military presence — and I have yet to hear why airlifting British soldiers to Basra to shovel up garbage in a city perched on one of the world’s richest oilfields would have swung it for us. Our own troops’ famously sensitive “hearts and minds” tactics turned out to make not a jot of difference when the chips were down. Leaping from their burning armoured vehicle with uniforms in flames didn’t leave British soldiers much time to wave at Iraqi kids.

But what if there had been twice the troop numbers, twice the candy, the dollars and the engineers? Iraqi resentment might have been even greater. When I was there two years ago no Iraqi suggested that they wanted to see more Americans. Such a policy, had it failed, would today have the single-malt sippers at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall opining that the mistake the Americans made was not to leave it to the Iraqis, or keep a lower profile.

The other strategy which is now said to have been “obviously” wiser is to have left the Baathist administration and Civil Service more or less intact. You may ask why in that case the huge expense of occupying the place, instead of just murdering Saddam, or inviting him to Switzerland with £20 billion and an amnesty.

Anyway, the idea that you can simply decapitate a regime like his is dubious — as if there had been a Whitehall-style mandarinate there, with a cadre of Sir Humphreys in a Baghdad club, awaiting a memo that a new government had taken over. But the coiled spring driving the clockwork of both the civil and the military parts of Baathist administration was terror and brutality from top to bottom. At the apex was one monstrous dictator. Remove him and all would have fallen into chaos and corruption. An occupying power that tried to slip its bottom smoothly into the driver’s seat while leaving the vehicle (the existing police, army and Civil Service) intact would have found the machine impossible to drive. And today everyone would be grandly pronouncing that of course our mistake was not to have removed at once Saddam’s bloodstained, corrupt and hated state machine.

The former hawks of press and politics now scramble for the status of visionaries let down by functionaries. This is a lifeboat that will not float. Let these visionaries understand that occupation is always brutal and usually resisted; that occupying armies are always tactless, sometimes abusive and usually boneheaded; that in the argument between hands-on and hands-off you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; and that the first, original and central cause of the Iraq fiasco was not the bad manners of this or that poor, half-educated squaddie from Missouri, nor the finer points of this or that State Department doctrine of neocolonial administration.

The reason for failure was not the post-invasion strategy. It was the strategy of invasion. Blame the vision, not the execution.