Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Iraq: the bitter legacy Blair is powerless to disown
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is quite happy to take the mickey out of other world leaders with his closest aides in private. But he never laughs at their George Bush jokes - even though there are plenty of them.

Even behind closed doors, the Prime Minister stands by his man in Washington. The bond is so strong that allies believe Mr Blair will pull his punches about America's role in the Iraq disaster when he later writes his memoirs.

Other key figures in the 2003 war may not be so forgiving. I suspect that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, and Geoff Hoon, then defence secretary, may have rather more to say about the Bush adminstration when they put pen to paper.

What will the memoirs and history books teach us about Iraq? Surely, an awful lot more than the four piecemeal "inquiries" in Britain, which only skated the surface of why things went so badly wrong.

True, there have been revealing disclosures about the bogus case for war, the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the legal doubts. But precious little has emerged about the catastrophic failure to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion.

History will paint a picture of "two governments" inside the Bush administration, British ministers believe - one headed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the other by Colin Powell. Britain was firmly allied to the Powell camp. But Mr Blair's special relationship with George Bush did not prevent the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis calling the shots.

In London, the Foreign Office sounded the alarm about the lack of post-war planning. A year before the war, Mr Straw told Mr Blair in a prophetic secret memo that the "big question" was what military action would achieve. "There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything," he wrote.

The foreign secretary went on: "Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better. Iraq has had NO history of democracy so no one has this habit or experience." In Washington, Mr Powell, the secretary of state, was making similar noises. But Mr Cheney, the Vice-President, and Mr Rumsfeld, then defence secretary, were interested only in a swift military triumph, according to British ministers. "Their actions were criminal," one told me.

In the glow of victory, the Pentagon continued to call the shots, and the Bush administration relied too heavily on the advice of the exiled Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. That led to the dismantling of Iraq's police and army, which is now widely recognised as a mistake.

The consensus between London and parts of the Washington establishment in 2003 is now being repeated. This week's devastating report by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by the former secretary of state James Baker, echoed Mr Blair's call for a big push on the Israel-Palestine peace process and for the US to talk to Iran and Syria.

The big question this time is whether President Bush will join this growing consensus. At his White House press conference with Mr Blair on Thursday, the President did not accept the link between Iraq and the Middle East peace process and seemed cool about talking to America's enemies in Tehran and Damascus. Unusually, the differences between the two leaders were visible in public, exposed by the ISG report.

Mr Blair will not lose too much sleep about media reports that he is at odds with Mr Bush. They make a pleasant change from cartoons showing him as his poodle.

The backdrop to his visit was probably as black as it has ever been in his 20-odd summits with Mr Bush. And yet two hours of one-to-one talks left the Prime Minister a little more optimistic than the President's public statements suggested. "We feel, after the ISG report, that we have the wind at our backs," one British source said yesterday.

Perhaps Mr Blair has to be an eternal optimist in order to carry on. Some ministers wondered why he travelled to Washington for another "shoulder-to-shoulder act" when a weakened President needed his support more than Mr Blair needed his. But the Prime Minister judged that he needed America's public backing before he embarks on another peace mission to the Middle East before Christmas.

Mr Blair may complete one peace process before he stands down next year. But it will be in Northern Ireland, where the prospects of restoring devolved government are good, rather than the Middle East. The intractable problems there will surely last longer than his remaining months in power, snuffing out any flickering hopes that his legacy will not be summed up by most people in one word: Iraq.