Asked by Sir Menzies Campbell at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday about the future of British troops in Iraq, in view of the Bush announcement of a substantial "increase" in US forces, Tony Blair chose to reply by saying how very different the American position in Baghdad was from Britain's in Basra. We didn't face, he argued, sectarian violence or the presence of al-Qa-ida.
Bush's new policy was "nowt to do with us", was the clear implication. Nothing here of whether we approved or disapproved of the White House moves, or even whether we had been consulted. Nothing to say, either, about how the US policy will affect the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the future cohesion of the country or the nature of its democracy or any of the other factors which directly impinge on us in the south.
After the years of proclaiming ourselves as America's closest ally, it's one true partner in the endeavour, we now regard ourselves as a separate entity, marching on our own route towards early handover to the Iraqi forces. It's no more than the truth, of course. For all the talk of the pundits about whether the Bush "surge" or "increase" will work, and the presentation of the President's speech last night as a "final gamble" for "victory" (whatever that means), the simple political reality is that this is extrication time.
James Baker and his study group had wanted withdrawal under the cover of a regional conference and a series of set targets for Iraqi handover. Bush has chosen instead the course of the Corleone family leaving New York - send in the hit squads, wipe out your opponents and retire with the flag flying.
The British, who had once espoused a policy of promoting local democracy in their area, are proving just as ruthless in their view of exit. At the first sign of quiet, raise the Iraqi flag and get out, whether you leave power to the local militia, the tribes or whoever. And if anyone complains, you say it is up to the Iraqis, after all. It's their country. If they can't manage to keep it together, if al-Maliki can't suppress the Sadr army, well that is not our fault. As if our invasion, the disbandment of the army and the years of rising insecurity and violence were not our responsibility, that our actions had no consequences.
Note that in all the discussion about a new start in Iraq, virtually nobody talks about what is in the best interests of the Iraqis. Almost everything is couched in terms of when "we" - the Americans and British - can decently hand over, when it would be right for "us" to disengage.
Which is, of course, the political reality. If Tony Blair has had any influence on President Bush - and there are many who doubt he's had any influence at all - it may be in advising his friend on how to wrongfoot your opponents. Announcing a referendum on the European constitution, introducing tuition fees, part-privatising the National Health Service - Blair is a past master at putting his opponents in an impossible dilemma as to whether to applaud or oppose.
That, as much as anything, is what George Bush's speech last night was all about. Having decided the Baker plan would involve too great an admission of failure on his and his vice-president's part, that talking to his bêtes noires, Iran and Syria, would be too hard to swallow, Bush has decided on a policy that leaves the Democrats outraged in their disapproval but most unlikely to call a halt to the troop movements.
The public don't want the US military to double up in the manner outlined by Bush. The experts (the same experts, it should be said, whose initial warnings against the invasion and its aftermath were ignored) argue that the tactic of brute force won't work and will create more fractures than it removes, many of the Iraqis themselves are against it.
But none of this finds any outlet in the political discussions before the event or the votes after. War catches all but the most experienced politicians on the hop, anxious to oppose but eager not to look as if they're failing to support "our brave men and women fighting abroad". And so the political opposition - as no doubt the Democrats will in Congress - falls back on the weasel position of expressing concern but doing nothing to prevent the action.
And the British are really no better in this. The silence on the issue at PMQs was characteristic of a Commons that has failed to tackle the Prime Minister on anything to do with this new chapter in the Iraq saga. We went into the war without proper debate of the options, we have proceeded through the occupation ignoring the very real opposition expressed in the country and now we are changing the rules of the game without scrutiny. It says much about the sorry state of our party politics but also, one fears, our democracy.Reuse content