Anthony Sampson: Why did we become prisoners of policies made in the Pentagon?

If we are to resolve the deadlock in Iraq, we must move back to our belief in international diplomacy

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After a week of escalating American warfare in Iraq, and revelations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the question becomes more urgent. How did the British allow themselves to become so dependent on the policies of the Pentagon?

After a week of escalating American warfare in Iraq, and revelations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the question becomes more urgent. How did the British allow themselves to become so dependent on the policies of the Pentagon?

For over the past two years, the British Government has been allied not so much with Washington as with the American military, as opposed to American diplomats; and this was the real concern of the letter sent to Tony Blair last week by 50 former British ambassadors. Many former American ambassadors, as well as serving diplomats, share the deep worries of their British counterparts, and they are now preparing their own open letter to Bush to protest against the conduct of the war in Iraq in support of the British initiative.

In America, the war has always been accompanied by a war in Washington between the Pentagon and the State Department, between Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell: a war which Powell has clearly lost. The new book by Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack, shows how little notice the White House took of the advice of the American diplomats, and how Bush's team looked to the generals to make their plans, not just for war, but for post-war Iraq. The domination of the Pentagon was not just the result of the President's need for tough military measures after 11 September. It was also an extension of the much longer-term strengthening of the Pentagon's role round the world, while the budgets of the State Department had been cut.

It was the victory of the Pentagon over the State Department which determined American policy in the Middle East, reinforced by the powerful influence of the neo-conservative cabal and the Israeli government. And when Blair gave his unqualified backing to George Bush, he was, in effect, backing the generals in Washington, over the diplomats.

There was little sign, from Woodward's account, of the Pentagon taking much interest in the history of the Middle East, which was seen as the province of dovish diplomats. There was no mention of the remarkable parallels and lessons of the earlier attempts to impose order on Iraq, of which the British diplomats were painfully aware.

The British knew all too well that, after they invented and then ruled the new country of Iraq in 1920, they had to bomb the rebellious tribesmen into submission with a ruthlessness that made even Churchill - then the colonial secretary - have doubts about the wisdom of the military. Over the past months, many British ex-diplomats have been exchanging their information and concerns through their own e-mail exchanges - which I have been able to eavesdrop - discussing the historical roots of the Iraqi rebellions, and they were supported by several American retired diplomats and journalists.

The ignorance of the White House and the Pentagon about Iraqi history encouraged the British ex-diplomats to go public. And one of them, Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, persuaded 50 of his colleagues to add their names to a letter to the Prime Minister. In the meantime, in Baghdad itself the diplomats were constantly out-ployed by the American generals - who were committed to military solutions, and reported direct to the Pentagon.

It was true that Washington's first American pro-consul in Baghdad, the quite inadequate General Jay Garner, who was chosen by the Pentagon, was soon replaced by a much smoother man from the State Department, Paul Bremer. But Bremer soon showed himself closely aligned to the generals, as well as to the neo-cons in Washington and their allies in Jerusalem.

The British representatives in Baghdad made little impact on the Pentagon's policies. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the UN who became Blair's special envoy in Iraq, maintained a discreet silence, and last week he distanced himself from the letter of the ex-ambassadors, but he also made clear his concerns about American military methods.

And the British generals in Iraq made equally clear that they were uneasy about American ruthlessness. When the head of the army, Sir Michael Jackson, recently testified to MPs in Westminster, he emphasised the "doctrinal differences" between the British and American military; in private, British generals were deeply alarmed by the vengeful American tactics in Fallujah and Najaf.

All these deep contradictions between diplomatic and military attitudes are now coming to a head as the Americans come closer to their deadline in two months' time. They have promised to yield control to the Iraqis themselves under UN supervision, while they will maintain and strengthen their military presence, and retain an American embassy with a staff of 3,000, which will be far more than an embassy.

And the United Nations is now facing all the problems of those contradictions. On the one hand, both Washington and London are constantly emphasising the "vital role" which the UN will play, and putting the burden on its special representative in Baghdad, Lakhdar Brahimi. On the other hand, they show no sign of giving the UN the independence that it needs if it is to gain the confidence of the Iraqi people.

The predicament of Brahimi has shown up all the weakness and humbug of current Anglo-American diplomacy. Washington needs the UN to play a "vital role" to justify their own retreat from Iraq: they know that the Iraqis are now so distrustful and fearful of the American military that they will trust only a visibly independent UN. Yet as soon as Brahimi shows real independence of view, he is immediately fiercely attacked for partisanship. A week ago, he told French radio: "The great poison in the region is this Israeli policy of domination and the suffering imposed on Palestinians."

It was a judgement that most diplomats agreed with; indeed, the same word, "poison", was used by the British ex-ambassadors in their letter. But it was seized on by many Americans as a proof that Brahimi could not be trusted: as William Safire of The New York Times wrote: "UN's Iraq envoy fails his first test."

The American media, with much conservative support, are now trying to undermine the UN by publicising the corruption in the "oil-for-food" programme in Iraq before the war. Washington had long ago known all about the scandal, and had done little about it; now it wants to use it as a weapon against Kofi Annan. Yet Washington still desperately needs a strong and credible UN to provide the justification for their retreat from Iraq.

The British Government, whatever its private worries, is less concerned with showing loyalty to the UN than loyalty to Washington - which, in the present climate, means the Pentagon. But if we are to finally resolve the terrible deadlock in Iraq, it is essential that we move back to our traditional belief in international diplomacy, after a week when no one can seriously believe in a purely military solution to Iraq.

The writer's 'Who Runs This Place?' has just been published by John Murray.

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