Correlli Barnett: Cut and run

Tony Blair is too vain and not brave enough to retreat from Iraq
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The Independent Online

Indeed, we now know that Whitehall officials secretly warned an unheeding Tony Blair that such an invasion could plunge Iraq into political and social meltdown, and, moreover, serve to alienate Britain's own Muslim population.

Officials also warned that British troops would be trapped in Iraq "for many years".

Now all this is coming to pass. Meanwhile, the self-deluding optimism of Blair and Bush has again and again been betrayed by events. The easy military victory of May 2003 did not usher in a golden age of Iraqi democracy and prosperity. The handover of power from the American viceroy, Paul Bremer, to an interim Iraqi authority did not weaken the insurgency - and neither did the capture of Saddam Hussein, nor the destruction of Falluja, nor the elections for a national assembly, nor the appointment of the present interim government.

It is now virtually certain that in the referendum on 15 October, Sunni voters will back their leaders and kill the present draft constitution. What then?

Yet the present political disarray in Iraq was entirely predictable to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of Iraqi history. Back in the 1950s Iraq enjoyed a parliamentary constitution and fairly free elections. Nonetheless, parliamentary politics consisted in endless jockeying for power and position between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias, as well as between the ramifying family and clan connections still so important today. Only a government headed by a strong man willing to use force was able to give some kind of cohesion to this bagful of racial and religious allsorts.

Yet the then Iraqi monarchy and its strong man, Nuri es-Said, were finally overthrown in a coup d'état by members of the very officer corps they had so depended on.

How, then, are Bush and Blair going to ensure that the new Iraqi army now being created would not similarly topple their hoped-for democracy? In fact, this new army and the new police force have already been deeply infiltrated by insurgent militias. It was the British fear that the two captured SAS soldiers had fallen into the handle of militiamen which prompted their forcible rescue - resulting in the present collapse of cooperation between the British command and the Iraqi authorities in Basra. An Iraqi judge has even issued an arrest warrant for the two British soldiers on a charge of murdering Iraqi policemen. If convicted in an Iraqi court, the soldiers could face a death sentence. What a mess!

The military prospects in Iraq are just as grim as the political. The director of operations for the US Central Command, Maj-Gen Douglas Lute, has admitted that the Iraqi insurgency cannot be beaten by military means alone. In fact, the security situation is becoming ever more precarious, with the country now teetering on the brink of open civil war. The tally of American servicemen and women killed has almost reached 2,000, and of British almost 100.

The already over-stretched British Army has somehow got to find 5,000 soldiers next year for Afghanistan (that earlier Bush-Blair adventure) on top of the 8,000 stuck in Iraq. And although America is the world's military superpower, she too is simply running short of soldiers. Something like 40 per cent of the 140,000 American service personnel in Iraq are reservists or National Guard - men and women hauled out of their civilian jobs to serve in Iraq for long months away from their families. When Iraqi ambushes succeed, the resulting loss and grief falls disproportionately on the small suburban or rural community in America whence the particular unit came. No wonder public support for the war and for Bush himself has reached a nadir.

Thus the truth becomes plainer every day that Bush and Blair have entrapped their countries in an unfolding political and strategic disaster of the first magnitude. And what is their response? It is to resort to windy rhetoric about staying in Iraq "as long as it takes". We have just had John Reid, Blair's Glasgow glasser, proclaiming that "we will not wave the white flag, and cut and run".

But "to cut and run" would in fact be the morally brave thing to do. The Duke of Wellington once opined that the best test of a great general is "to know when to retreat and to dare to do it". How does a leader know just when? He knows it when his current strategy is failing to produce the hoped-for results, but on the contrary is running ever deeper into difficulties and danger, and yet with the final result all in doubt.

This is surely the present case with Tony Blair's Iraq policy. But is Blair enough of a realist to face the fact that the time has come for retreat? And, if so, has he the moral courage to dare to give the order - especially as it would mean publicly acknowledging that his war has constituted the greatest blunder committed by a British prime minister in modern times?

Blair should look for inspiration to the tough decisions reached by his truly great predecessor Clem Attlee over India in 1947 and Palestine in 1947-48. In both cases Britain was (unlike in Iraq today) legally the sovereign authority, for Britain governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, and India as part of the British Empire. It was therefore far more politically daunting for Attlee to abdicate British rule in these countries than for Blair simply to withdraw British forces from Iraq.

Yet there was no pious Blair-style nonsense about staying on in India or Palestine out of a moral obligation to the inhabitants. Instead, Attlee decided with quiet ruthlessness that Britain's own interests must come first. So when it proved impossible to negotiate compromise political settlements between Jew and Arab for the future of Palestine, and between Hindu and Moslem for the future of a united India, Attlee simply announced firm dates when Britain would cease to govern, haul down the Union flag, and begin to evacuate her armed forces.

In India the end of British rule in 1947 ushered in a period of mass migrations of Hindus and Muslims coupled with dreadful communal massacres - but not a British life was lost. In Palestine the British withdrawal in 1948 was the signal for all-out war between the new state of Israel and its Arab neighbours - another mass slaughter in which, again, not a British life was lost.

Of course, Attlee's decisions were denounced by political opponents at home as "scuttle", while the ending of the Palestine mandate caused much odium in Washington. No doubt an announcement now by Tony Blair of a firm date (say, mid-summer 2006) for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq would incur similar odium in Washington. But if Attlee could brave such odium at a time when Britain stood in desperate need of American economic and strategic support, then Blair could certainly do so today when Britain stands in no comparable need.

Unlike Attlee, however, Blair suffers from profound personal handicaps - a limitless capacity for self-delusion born of an ineffable vanity - that will surely prevent him from knowing when to retreat and daring to do it.