Silence is Britain's best policy on Iraq

Every time that Tony Blair and George Bush open their mouths, they make matters worse
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The Independent Online

There is a terrible temptation for those who were against the Iraq war to want it all to end badly in order to prove their point. It's the same the other way round, of course. Those who were for the invasion desperately want to show how it is all coming right at the end. And there is something particularly galling about having to listen to Tony Blair and President Bush glorying in a UN resolution which they know represents almost the opposite of their thinking in going to war in the first place. A lurch to sovereignty on 30 June, a retreat from confrontation by the occupying troops in Falluja and Najaf, a beseeching of help and support from the United Nations - none of these were part of the game plan in March of last year.

There is a terrible temptation for those who were against the Iraq war to want it all to end badly in order to prove their point. It's the same the other way round, of course. Those who were for the invasion desperately want to show how it is all coming right at the end. And there is something particularly galling about having to listen to Tony Blair and President Bush glorying in a UN resolution which they know represents almost the opposite of their thinking in going to war in the first place. A lurch to sovereignty on 30 June, a retreat from confrontation by the occupying troops in Falluja and Najaf, a beseeching of help and support from the United Nations - none of these were part of the game plan in March of last year.

But better by far to embrace a sinner that repenteth than to insist on a complete grovel to prove a point. Whatever the deceit and the arrogance involved in the decision to invade Iraq, it cannot be right to want the country to descend into chaos as a judgement on the perpetrators. The West has continually failed Iraq as a country, in refusing it self-determination after the First World War, in supporting Saddam Hussein for a generation, and then in failing to support the revolts of Kurds and Shia which followed the 1991 Gulf War.

It is hardly a worthy position to fail to support its emergence as a prosperous and stable country now. The international community should be supporting the new government in Baghdad to get the country through to the point of elections early next year. It may be an imperfect government, far too closely associated with the discredited Iraqi Governing Council to warrant acclamation as truly representative of the country. Legitimacy can only be conferred by elections, and it is to that end that the international community must do what it can to keep the country on course.

In that sense, too, President Bush is right to urge the G8 meeting at the Sea Island resort in the US to cancel Iraq's debts. It may be a self-serving suggestion, riddled by hypocrisy in America's approach to other people's debts. And it may be being pursued in the full knowledge that it will hurt Russia and France, Iraq's big creditors, far more than it will affect US, which has relatively small amounts of money outstanding. But Iraq cannot grow with this weight of indebtedness on its shoulders. A way out should be found.

The problem, of course, is that, for all the sense of new unity behind the UN resolution this week, the past cannot simply be swept under an apolitical carpet and the world proceed as if there had never been a disagreement. The fractures were too fierce for that. At issue is not just Iraq but the whole way in which the US uses its power abroad and the extent to which Washington and London are still embarked on their own concept of global security and pre-emptive action.

Nor do Blair and Bush seem in any mood to reconsider their principles rather than just their tactics in Iraq. That is partly a matter of domestic politics. Both leaders are under heavy fire at home. To admit their mistakes would, in their eyes, be to hand ammunition to their enemies. At this point, with the UN resolution passed and the transfer of sovereignty in sight, they must feel that their best policy is to hope that things quieten in Iraq and that the minds of their electorate will return to more local issues.

That is politics. But what is so frightening is that neither Blair nor Bush appear to have learned any lessons from Iraq. Far from it. They may constantly shift the ground on which they went to war, but deep down both feel that they were right to invade Iraq on a broader perspective than the sins of Saddam Hussein alone or even his supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. For Blair it is a vision, which he repeated in two separate BBC interviews this week, of a world threatened by rogue states and their access to instruments of evil. For Bush it is a view for the world in which Iraq is the lever by which he can move the wider Middle East to peace and friendliness by way of democracy and open markets.

Barely was the ink dry on the UN resolution than Bush and Blair were at it again, urging a new programme for the democratisation of the Middle East - the so-called "Greater Middle East initiative" - and declaring the deep concern to move the peace process forward in Palestine. No sooner than they will have finished their deliberations off Georgia than they will be off to Istanbul for a Nato summit, top of whose agenda is a proposal for Nato to start sending in troops to replace the Poles and back up the Americans.

Its the wrong discussion at this time. We're still in the world of what "we" decide is right for Iraq and the Middle East and how "we" are going to effect it. But there's not a jot of evidence that the Iraqis want Nato involved, particularly as that will bring in Turkey. Indeed there's not much evidence that any foreigner is now wanted.

Still less is there any evidence that the Middle East is waiting eager for the West to "bring it" democracy. No one would deny that greater democracy would be a good thing in the Middle East. There are many in the region who would agree wholeheartedly and having been urging it on their own rulers. But the mere fact that it is being presented as a proposal from the occupiers of Iraq makes it a non-starter as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. Iraq has actually set back the cause of reform in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the surrounding countries, not aided it.

And the Middle East is right to look on the West's words with suspicion. "Democracy" cannot be parachuted it from a US aeroplane, it must come bottom up - just as peace between Palestine and Israel must.

In the same way, the surest hope for Iraqi peace must be that the new government can distance itself as far as possible from the foreign forces in its land. For it to give even faintest suggestion that it is a continuation of American rule by other means would be a death warrant. And for the new leadership, drawn at the top largely from returned exiles with little personal prestige or following within the country, to be seen to use American or British arms to further its own aims would be as bad.

Iraq has huge problems, not least in the division between Shia and Kurds shown in the latest pronouncements of Ayatollah al-Sistani and the Turkish leadership. The Sunni are still up in arms. Muqtada Sadr is still stirring the waters. The best chance now lies in the political deals that can be reached between the factions on the ground before and after the elections, not in an imposition from foreigners mouthing grand phrases about Iraqi "freedom" and "sovereignty".

If the Iraq is to do any god for the wider Middle East it is precisely in this: that change should come from within, not be imposed from without. Most of the problems within Iraq derive from the fact that it was an outside intervention pursued by Washington, with the aid of London, for their own reasons. If Iraq serves as the moment when the Middle East starts to tackle its problems in its own way and according to its own perception, then it really will prove a turning point in the region. But for that to happen, the best contribution of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush would be to remain silent. Every time they open their mouths, they only make it worse.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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