Bruce Anderson: Those of us who advocated this war have a duty to ask how it turned out so terribly

Most of those who knew a lot about the Middle East opposed war. Their expertise was disregarded
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The Independent Online

In his last war-time broadcast to his subjects, the Emperor Hirohito said: "It seems that recent events have not unfolded entirely to our advantage." Those of us who supported the Iraq war know what he meant. It is far too early to conclude that the situation is irredeemable. History will require many decades to complete its audit of failure and success; the President's comparison with Vietnam was inaccurate as well as unwise. Even so, we warmongers must now answer two questions; what went wrong, and what can be done to put it right?

The first is easier, though complex. From the outset, US policy was driven by an explosive combination of anger and idealism. This was compounded by a moral lacuna and further inflamed by an old man in a hurry. After 11 September, the Bush administration seemed to be confronting an existential question. Who are these people who hate us so much, and how can we deal with them?

Enter the idealists. The neo-cons had the answer. It was not enough to strike back at our enemies. We also had to help them. The Middle East was a giant leper colony, in which corrupt and oppressive regimes denied their peoples any prospect of a decent life, thus acting as recruiting sergeants for Islamic terrorism. But there was a simple cure: democracy.

These days, it is not easy to argue against democracy, especially when talking about peoples of a different colour. Yet it is hard to see how democratic elections would improve matters in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Recent elections in Iran and Palestine did not turn out as hoped. Is it clear that the Algerian generals were wrong to prevent a democratically-elected Islamofascist government from taking power? If only there had been generals like that to deal with Hitler in 1933-34.

Most of the successful governments in the Islamic world are executive monarchies with nascent parliamentary institutions; Morocco, Jordan, Oman and other Gulf States. Brits who made that point to neo-con friends were likely to be accused of nostalgia for a feudal past, plus racism. Were we really saying that Arabs and Muslims were not entitled to the same rights as Europeans? We were indeed arguing that much of the Islamic world was not ready for Westminster democracy, but we could make no headway; democracy was deemed to be the penicillin of politics.

Except, apparently, in Palestine. The Israelis are not to blame for all the problems of the Middle East. Over the decades, the Palestinian leadership has regularly betrayed its own people. Yet even so, the Palestinians have a case, and they are becoming a sore tooth in the Islamic world. Western statesmen may talk eloquently about justice, human rights and democracy. But until there is an attempt to redress legitimate Palestinian grievances, they will not get a hearing in the Arab street.

Israel is entitled to live in peace and safety, but occupied territories are not a basis for security. Israel's long-term survival requires a modus vivendi with its neighbours.

That brings us to the old man in a hurry, who finds it hard to establish a modus vivendi with his closest colleagues; Donald Rumsfeld. Mr Rumsfeld has made a contribution to political analysis. The "unknown- unknown" is a good phrase. What a pity that he did not act upon it. If a man understands that there are limits not only to his knowledge but to his awareness of what he needs to know, he should proceed with caution. Mr Rumsfeld does not do caution. So he should not have been allowed to do the reconstruction of Iraq.

Here, there was a problem. On both sides of the Atlantic, a lot of those in favour of the war have little understanding of the region. Many of them have been too busy despising it to find out about it. But most of those who knew a lot about the Middle East were opposed to the war. So their expertise was disregarded.

Neither the State Department nor the Foreign Office was allowed to have a policy role. In Washington, those around the President regarded Colin Powell as appeasement-minded. In London, Premier Blair only listens to officials who are unlikely to argue with him. His failure was especially culpable. There are a lot of people in the FO who would have understood the problems of post-war Iraq. This is the conversation which ought to have taken place.

Foreign Secretary: "There's no point in continuing this discussion. The PM has decided on war, and that's that." Permanent Secretary: "Well if you really determined to do this and you're to have any chance of success you must address the post-war reconstruction in the following ways ..." Foreign Secretary: "Now you're talking. You produce a paper along those lines by close of play tomorrow and I'll stand over the PM till he reads it."

But Mr Blair has never appointed a Foreign Secretary who would assist his great department of state to speak truth unto power. Nor did Mr Blair himself speak truth unto power: American power. Christopher Meyer's book depicts Tony Blair as constantly overawed in Washington. But if the PM had asserted himself, the President's gratitude and friendship would have ensured that he was listened to and, perhaps, acted upon. There was another conversation which should have taken place.

PM: "You Yanks have never been keen on running other countries. We have. My Foreign Office is full of guys with pith-helmets in the back cupboard, who wish there was still a British Empire. They're the boys to sort out Iraq." Without drafting the President's reply, it is reasonable to assume that had the UK had pressed the point, much more thought would have been given to the post-war position.

Secretary Rumsfeld did confound the sceptics who feared that many more troops would be necessary to overwhelm Saddam. By getting the war right, he won great prestige. This enabled him to jeopardise the peace.

If the Americans had installed a provisional government as soon as they arrived, while not sacking the Iraqi army and removing all Baathists from the administration, it is possible that the situation would now be less menacing. As to the way forward, General Sir Richard Dannatt is right. We sought "a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the Middle East ... We should (now) aim for a lower ambition." It is to be hoped that James Baker will come up with one.

This would not satisfy Mr Bush's critics. But before they prepare to revel in humiliation, they should consider two points. First, an outcome which emboldened Muslim fanatics while weakening American resolve is not in our interests. As Woodrow Wilson put it: "If America goes back upon [itself] ... mankind has no other place to turn." Second, refusing to invade Iraq is no longer an option. To paraphrase Colin Powell, if you break it, you have to try to mend it.