If there is one thing more despicable than the sight of rats leaving the sinking ship it is the sight of so-called friends standing aside pretending it is nothing to do with them. The US is in the throes of self-doubt and reconsideration of its policy in Iraq. And so it should be. But what is shameful is the way that British politicians, generals and commentators are treating it as if it was a problem for the Americans alone, brought on by their own failures of post-invasion policy.
It isn't. Britain is complicit in this disaster, and not just in the decision to invade Iraq. We actively supported the war in all its phases, we followed policies of occupation no different from the US, we played politics with the successive Iraqi governments, promoting our own candidate, Iyad Allawi, for Prime Minister, and promoted the cause of our own companies in the reconstruction effort.
Worse, we never offered what is surely the test of true friendship: honest and disinterested advice. From the moment the British decided to move out from their embassy on the river to hunker down with the Americans in the Green Zone, we never seem to have displayed anything other than unstinting and uncritical support.
Perhaps it would have made no difference. But a public disagreement over the policies that led to Guantanamo, rendition and Abu Ghraib, a distinct approach to security, a clear warning from the bitter experience of our own past in these parts of how easily the foreign presence becomes seen as occupation - all these might have had some effect and saved perhaps the coalition forces from the worst mistakes such as disbanding the Iraqi army. At the very least, we might have lent an outside voice to those within the US who were warning against the disaster ensuing. The US proved a better friend to Britain over Suez than we are to America in Iraq.
Tony Blair must bear much of the responsibility for this failure in the duties of alliance. He it was who insisted that British support for Washington be unquestioning, whatever the mutterings from his staff and advisers.
The problem now for the British is essentially the same as that for the Americans, and we can't avoid it by pretending that it is all up to Washington and we'll just follow on behind. If the present policy in Iraq is getting us nowhere - as is clearly the case - then we are going to have to work out a disengagement and ultimately an exit strategy together with Washington, and help them to it.
Probably that is impossible so long as Bush and Blair are still in office. They are both in too deep to make the admissions of mistakes which would allow a change of course.
We saw that at Blair's monthly press conference and Prime Minister's Questions this week. It is not just his continued refusal to face the fact that the coalition forces are now part of the problem not the solution, nor his specious argument that insurgency in Iraq, the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorist bombs at home are all part of the same continuum, that suggest that he cannot come to terms with reality. It is that his efforts at self-justification are leading Britain down a path of fantasy and confrontation from which there are fewer and fewer chances of escape.
There is a way out. It requires us to bow out of Iraq and to bring in its neighbours, including Iran and Syria, not so much to produce a solution within the country as to prevent its troubles from spreading through the region. It's a solution now being floated by James Baker and his committee in the US, but it's one that Bush, with his Manichaean vision of the world, cannot countenance; nor can Blair help with his dog-like devotion to the cause. James Baker, one suspects, is there to pave the way for a different policy of the Republican Party in the forthcoming elections, not of the White House.
Once Blair has gone, then the pieces can start being moved on the board. Which is comforting for Gordon Brown and David Cameron, both of whom supported the war but can pretend that new circumstances demand new policies, but not much use unless they start formulating policies now as to an exit strategy and how to help Washington towards it.
For Britain as much as America, Iraq has shown the limits of power. The US thought it would display the full authority it held as the sole remaining superpower after the Cold War. For Britain, it was meant to show our vital role in helping America to a new world order. What it has proved instead is that neither of us, together or apart, have the resources or the understanding to impose our will on the world, or even part of it. Bush and Blair cannot admit that. But can, one wonders, their successors?Reuse content