Bruce Anderson: America cannot walk away from its own mess

The Baker strategy is the only hope. This does not mean that it is realistic
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The wheel of history turned last Wednesday and moved the world into a new and dangerous era. The Baker report made plain what had already been implicit: America has failed. The Bush administration set out to reshape the Middle East. The swamps of misery would be drained. The fortresses of oppression would be laid low. The battle would begin in the worst of all the region's failed states, Iraq, with the most brutal of its rulers, Saddam Hussein. His overthrow and his country's freedom would create a transforming momentum and a better world.

That was the plan. Nothing has gone according to plan. Until the world ends - which could now be sooner rather than later - historians will argue as to whether the plan was lunacy, or the execution ludicrous (or both). This writer, who supported the war and who now laments its failure, adheres to the latter view.

As Bob Woodward's State of Denial and Thomas Ricks' Fiasco made clear, the decisions to bin the army and sack all the Baathists in the bureaucracry were taken in about five minutes, against the horrified advice of those who had some understanding of Iraq. In Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, ignorance and thoughtlessness were reinforced by arrogance and frivolousness.

Mr Rumsfeld comes out very badly in both books. Although this may be due to his failure to provide the authors with self-serving testimony, it is hard to believe that the judgement of history will be more favourable. Four years ago, someone in the White House described the Rumsfeld modus operandi. "You go into a meeting on Don's side and 30 seconds later he has one hand around your throat and the other round your balls. That's when you're on his side." Iraq got similar treatment. De-Baathification and throwing an army out of work: what surer way to create nostalgia for the failed state and recruit the foot soldiers of insurgency? Those were among the two worst decisions ever taken by an American administration.

But there is no point in regrets for what might have been. We must forget about grandiose ambitions to reshape the moral and political architecture of the Middle East. The priority now is to dissuade the US from reneging on its obligations to the pottery-barn. That is the place where middle America buys rustic tableware. It also provided the most resonant metaphor of the early Iraq War period. Colin Powell reminded President Bush about the notice which sensible pottery-barn owners display prominently: "If you break it, you own it."

Iraq is broken and America cannot abandon its responsibilities. Yet it will not be easy to discharge them. Modern democracies will embrace easy wars over a limited period in a good cause. Messy, apparently endless, conflicts in a tainted cause are another matter. In 1990, during the preparations for the Gulf War, Peter Inge was Chief of the General Staff. He visited a lot of British troops and was always asked the same question: "Is the country behind us, sir?" He had no difficulty in replying that it was. The resulting reassurance was palpable. Could an American general look a grunt in the eye today and give Field Marshal Inge's answer?

Even in our selfish, pleasure-seeking age, young men are willing to volunteer and sacrifice, to fight and to die, for victory and their country's honour. But the last army which fought well in the lost and dishonourable cause was the Wehrmacht in 1944/45. We should not wish for soldiers like that.

Yet we will need soldiers to fight on until an Iraqi Government can survive. That will not be easy. Nor will diplomacy. If we had approached Iran and Syria three years ago with the offer of talks, we would have been making concessions from strength. Now, we are falling back on diplomacy as war by other means - because war has failed. This is unlikely to impress the Iranians or the Syrians.

Palestine is crucial to the Baker strategy, as it should have been to the Bush approach. You cannot argue for democracy in the Middle East, but only to the east of the River Jordan. There were moments when the President seemed to realise this. Unlike his predecessors, he did use the term "Palestinian state". But he did nothing to turn words into deeds. Because of Palestine, it became increasingly impossible for the West to receive a hearing on the Arab street. Most Arabs would argue that our stance is hypocritical. It is not easy to refute that charge.

Jim Baker is the only hope. This does not mean that it is realistic. The most likely outcome is a weakened America, an emboldened al-Qa'ida and an increased terrorist threat to the US and the UK. If only the neocons' dreams had been realised. Instead, we can confidently look forward to nightmares.