Adrian Hamilton: The advice Blair should offer Bush today

From a domestic view - which is what matters - Iraq is a failure, and both know it
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There is one thing that Tony Blair will not do on his visit to Washington today, and that is to help President Bush develop a new exit strategy for Iraq.

He should, of course. If there was ever a time the US needed a helpful ally with long experience of Middle East fisacos, it is now. But no, Bush will not greet his friend with, "Yo, Tony, we need to rethink this Iraqi business from the bottom up and I need your help to do it." Nor will Blair reply, "Happy to help, President. We have our own connections with Syria, Iran and the other neighbours. There's a lot we can do."

They won't say these things, despite the publication of the report of the Iraq Study Group yesterday, and despite the overwhelming desire of their respective electorates for a new start, because that's not the way their relationship works. Bush has never, to anyone's knowledge, sought Blair's independent view. He has always seen the British Prime Minister not as a partner, but as a loyal and dependable ally willing to fall into line whatever Washington decides upon. And that, as far as everyone who has witnessed their meetings, is exactly how Blair has behaved.

And just now the two of them are stuck, without a way out. From a domestic political view - and this is what really matters to the two - Iraq is a failure, and both know it. They had promised their voters a quick and glorious act of tyrannicide, which would bring admiration and moral kudos on themselves and their countries. It didn't. It never will. Their public realises that. In political terms, the best they can hope for now is a vaguely orderly retreat with whatever dignity they can manage to rescue from the wreckage.

The trouble is that there is no simple way of achieving even this more limited aim. Certainly Baker hasn't found it, and for the obvious reason. Every radical policy option - an early timetable for withdrawal, accepting the break-up of Iraq, trying to get Syria and Iran to control the situation to allow an honourable withdrawal - is either impossible politically or will bring on even more bloodshed and disaster on the poor Iraqi people.

The point of the Study Group was to provide a politically neutral means of enabling Bush and the US administration to get off the Iraqi hook. But there are no such easy means, at any rate not ones which Bush could accept without going back on every policy he has stood for. To sell it to Washington, James Baker and Lee Hamilton have couched the report solely in terms of what the US can and will do bilaterally, on the diplomatic front and on the military one. They cannot see that America's locus to do this has been all but destroyed bv Iraq.

There is an alternative scenario. it would involve the US, with Britain in tow, announcing an exit plan and a date for departure; for a regional conference to be called, probably under the aegis of the UN, in which all Iraq's neighbours would be asked to support its continuance as a unified state, act to stop arms and fighters moving in and provide regional support for the elected government.

It might not prevent civil war. It might not provide security within Iraq. But it could at least stop the rot spreading out and might limit the violence.

But it would also demand of Washington that it acknowledge America has no place in Iraq, nor ever should have, and it would require the US to accept Iran and Syria's role as regional players.

Instead, of course, the White House is doing the opposite. It still views itself as the architect of a final settlement, it still wants to prove that it did the right thing in overthrowing Saddam, it still sees the source of its troubles as outside intervention rather than home-grown rejection and it is still playing the game - as Bush was in Jordan last month - of trying to build up a Sunni coalition against the Shia, of dividing the Middle East not encouraging it to come together.

Blair is not going to bring anything new to the table. Asked about the Baker report at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, all he could think of werethe tired old cliches about fighting the enemies of democracy on the streets of Baghdad and the delusory belief that all was going well in the handover to Iraqi forces.

His one positive thought was the belief in the importance of a settlement of the Palestinian question. But these are just words. Britain has no influence on the proceedings, nor would Bush listen to Blair if he were to press for a more even-handed policy.

When the two men meet today, it will not be as two statesmen filled with new purpose and fresh ideas. It will be two tired and now redundant politicians, propping each other up with the forlorn hope it won't all end up quite as badly as they now suspect it will.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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