In discussions of Britain's predicament in Iraq, it is often assumed that British interests and American interests are identical. For instance, people looked at the Iraq Study Group chaired by former secretary of state, James Baker, and a former democratic congressman, Lee Hamilton, to see whether it offered a way forward on the footing that what would be right for the US would suit us equally well.
In fact, the Iraq Study Group document is written entirely in terms of American interests narrowly defined. It could have asked what is the best policy for the Western Alliance or what is the right course for the American-led Coalition in Iraq. Or what should the Allies do now? But it did none of these things. Its explicit purpose was to discuss ways of protecting "America's credibility, interests and values".
Fair enough. I wouldn't expect anything else. But in that case let us likewise consider solely our own credibility, our own interests and our own values. In advising this, however, I am making another assumption which also requires examination: that we could or should act independently of the Americans. On a "realpolitik" view, which dispenses with sentiment, we would do so if it suited us. But as it happens I do harbour sentimental feelings about the duties of allies towards each other in war. You don't leave your friend in the lurch when things are going badly.
Friend? That is the question. Have we actually been friends in arms, engaged in a joint enterprise, admittedly as the junior partner? In fact, the evidence points quite the other way. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said in March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq began, that British military help was not essential. As a US State Department official, Kendall Myers, commented the other day in a lecture given in Washington: "That was a sort of give away. I felt a little ashamed and a certain sadness that we had treated Mr Blair like that. And yet here it was - there was nothing, no pay back, no sense of a reciprocity of the relationship."
The testimony of Mr Myers on his own wouldn't be enough to establish the point. But the importance of his recent remarks is that they confirm what had in any case become obvious. Mr Blair has contrived to have himself treated by Mr Bush as a "useful idiot". There has been no reciprocity in Mr Myers' sense. So we owe no duty of friendship towards Mr Bush. Of the many humiliations Mr Blair has put upon us, this is not the least: he has allowed the US to use Britain for its own purposes. It's time we looked after ourselves.
In this frame of mind, let us turn back to the Iraq Study Group report. It conveys the unanimous view of its 10 members. They are all alike experienced, distinguished and sufficiently full of years to be beyond personal ambition. They state flatly that there is little evidence that the long-term deployment of US troops by itself (note they don't say Coalition troops) "has led or will lead to fundamental improvements in the security situation".
The situation is "grave and deteriorating". The report emphasises that "there are no risk-free alternatives available to the United States at this time". And it adds: "Reducing our combat troop commitments in Iraq, whenever that occurs, undeniably creates risks, but leaving those forces tied down in Iraq indefinitely creates it own set of security risks."
Faced with these overwhelming difficulties, however, the Study Group rejects the two strong policies that could be considered. These are either substantially to increase troop levels and make a renewed drive for "victory" or to pull out as soon as possible. There aren't the troops available for the first and, even if there were, such a move might worsen the security problem given that many Iraqis see US soldiers as an army of "occupation". As to the swift exit, that is dismissed in just these few words: "Because so much is at stake."
The Iraq Study Group's task, then, is how to make the best of a bad job by finding a middle way - which is what 10 sensible people will always do if you ask them to solve a problem. Their answer? Everybody must do better - Iraq's neighbours, Iraq's leaders, the US itself. This exhortatory approach often takes a preaching tone: "Iraq's neighbours are not doing enough to help Iraq achieve stability." Come again. Iraq's neighbours are not doing enough to repair what the Americans, with British forces alongside, wilfully damaged?
In particular, the Study Group recommends, Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation. And there is work for Syria to do, too. It should control its borders with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.
And how might these countries be persuaded to co-operate? Because, as the report puts it, the United States has disincentives and incentives available. Unfortunately, though, these sticks and carrots don't amount to much. Very likely the donkey won't budge.
The Iraqis too have big changes to make if they are to satisfy the Study Group's hopes. Shia leaders must make the decisions to demobilise militias. Sunni Arabs must make the decision to seek their aims through a peaceful political process, not through violent revolt. The Iraqi government and Sunni Arab tribes must aggressively pursue al-Qa'ida.
And why should any of this happen? Because, says the report, the Iraqi government must be made to understand that continued US political, military and economic support for Iraq depends on making substantial progress towards the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance. In other words, if you don't get your act together, we shall leave. Are there many Iraqis who would see that as an outcome to be avoided at all costs? I don't think so. Iraq is irredeemably a failed state. There is no middle way.
If I have written this piece without once mentioning the deaths and injuries that British soldiers have suffered for no good cause, it isn't because I have forgotten about them or think that this is something which professional soldiers must expect. Quite the contrary. The precise question for Mr Blair to answer is this. For what worthwhile purpose are British troops standing in the line of fire? Were you to visit the family and friends of the next British casualty, what would you say to them? Apart, that is, from all that stuff about us being involved in a worldwide struggle between good and evil.
No, I ask too much. The Prime Minister is incapable of admitting error. It will be for his successor to consider British interests in the cold light of the first morning in Downing Street. And the right course for this country will be pretty obvious, will it not? We must withdraw British troops as soon as possible. No good outcome is available. Only bad outcomes remain.Reuse content