Iraq cannot be forgotten or forgiven

War is not a decision like the Dome, mistaken, expensive, but ultimately of limited consequence
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The Independent Online

You have to hand it to politicians. However tough the going may be, however disastrous the context, somehow they always contrive to sound as if they are still in charge, still presiding over a situation which is going entirely according to plan, and for which no apologies are called for.

You have to hand it to politicians. However tough the going may be, however disastrous the context, somehow they always contrive to sound as if they are still in charge, still presiding over a situation which is going entirely according to plan, and for which no apologies are called for.

Even by these standards, however, Tony Blair's speech to the TUC this week was pretty cheeky. With Iraq suffering one of its worst weeks of violence since the invasion and the final report of the inspectors into weapons of mass destruction widely expected in a few weeks to report that there were none, the British Prime Minister got up to say that it would be "insincere and dishonest" to recant on the war.

"I can't apologise," he told an audience, many of whom showed yesterday just how upset they are still by the indecision to invade Iraq, "for what I think about the world since September 11, or what I have done in the war against this vicious terrorism we face."

Eh? Since when was Iraq about the war against terror? We were told it was all about weapons of mass destruction and - on the latest post facto reasoning - what a dictator was doing to his own people and had been doing a decade before 11 September.

But that's a politician for you, or at least this one. And Blair is probably right in hard political terms. It is now too late to apologise or recant. The last moment for that was really when Lord Butler reported, when he could have gracefully admitted that it hadn't turned out as expected while acclaiming the report's conclusion that he did it for the best of motives and without deceit.

Now opinions have hardened on both sides, and it is hard to see how they can ever be reconciled. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq has made it highly unlikely that the war's opponents can be persuaded that it ended up doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons. The politics of responsibility equally make it virtually impossible for the British Prime Minister to admit mistakes at this stage without looking as if he has been forced to, and without appearing to make a mockery of the efforts, and the deaths, of British troops.

And so we get General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the British army, stolidly insisting, as he did yesterday on a visit to Baghdad, all was under control in Iraq while the bombs claim over 40 lives in a day in the centre of its capital. And we have to listen while the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw chooses this moment to announce, without irony, Britain's great new initiative of helping set up football leagues in Iraq. (Tuesday night, incidentally, saw a documentary on BBC4 about Hitler and Mussolini's espousal of football as a propaganda tool - but that is another story.)

And we will have to witness more of the efforts we've seen this week to declare Iraq a closed book, something that can be simply put to one side, while the Prime Minister and his team return to the questions which Iraq briefly and wrongly diverted them from - those of health, education, jobs and the "issues concerning hard-working families".

It's a wonderfully disingenuous interpretation of events. The Prime Minister wasn't a man torn away from his most heartfelt interests in domestic reform by the horrors of world events. Like all his predecessors, he became fascinated with cutting a figure on the world stage, the more so as his initial entrance was so widely applauded in the US and other countries. Domestic issues have increased in attraction in direct proportion to his lack of success in foreign policy.

As a political tactic, it has its point. When you're in a hole, stop digging and move discreetly to another ground. But as a strategy, it has two weaknesses.

One is that while you may wish to draw a veil over the whole issue, others will not. War is not - at least not to a sizeable section of the public - something you can treat as if it was a decision like the Dome, mistaken, expensive, but ultimately of limited consequence. Those who thought the war wrong and the British public deliberately deceived over it (the majority in the opinion polls) are not going to forgive and forget. There may be little they can do about it for the moment, but that anger is there and will keep erupting each time the Prime Minister is seen to dodge the question or treat it lightly.

The other problem is that the occupation of Iraq and its consequences won't allow the question to be sidelined in this way. In failing to admit mistakes and acknowledge that Iraq hasn't turned out as expected, the Prime Minister has put himself where no self-respecting politicians want to be - at the mercy of events, and at the mercy of how the US and the Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi react to those events.

Over the past week, the reading and viewing public has been treated to a multitude of conflicting narratives as to whether the Prime Minister came close to resignation or promised it to Gordon Brown. To those with a taste for the foibles and fairy tales of Westminster life, there is something endlessly fascinating about the intricacies of these varied accounts. To the ordinary citizen, one suspects, they are deeply boring.

But they matter in that it is on your interpretation of the past that you must base your expectation of the Prime Minister's performance in the future. On the "I'm back and in charge" version of the recent past, being promoted by the Blairite chroniclers, you can expect a prime minister who will be determined to take control of the agenda by forcing through radical reform at home and a more independent policy abroad. Lord Bragg's mention of domestic pressures are seen in this narrative as pointing to an acceptable reason for wobbling on the part of an otherwise commanding and decisive figure.

The other narrative is supplied by Derek Scott, Blair's former economics adviser, as well as Brownites. On this account, Blair is a man who shies away from confrontation, who uses a silver tongue to charm and promise his way out of difficult situations and tense relations, a politician who in the end won't face down his opponents or come clean with his colleagues.

If you take this view - and it is the one borne out by most of the evidence we have - then we are in for a prolonged period of continuous new initiatives designed to show that the Prime Minister has taken control of the agenda, followed by a lack of follow-through which proves that he hasn't. With President Bush, as with Chancellor Brown, it is all the rhetoric of independence and the practice of caving in.

The problem of Iraq is that, as the violence mounts, it doesn't allow such vacillation and weakness. The effort to slide it all over to Allawi's court has failed. Security has grown worse, not better. As Blair gears up for his election, elections (or their postponement) in Iraq, the course of politics in Israel, the confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons, the next terrorist outrages, the continuing stream of investigations into intelligence and the lack of WMD - all will gather pace, forcing their way onto the front pages, whatever Blair's hopes for a life of domestic quietude.

Just standing there going on as if nothing had changed, and nothing needed reconsidering, will seem not so much an act of strength, or even defiance, as the demonstration of a weak man, a lame duck prime minister unable to come to terms with the consequences of his own decisions.