Oliver Miles: A modest proposal. How Britain can help speed up an exit from Iraq

When did Geoff Hoon or John Reid last meet Donald Rumsfeld for a serious policy discussion?
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The Independent Online

In April last year, 52 retired British ambassadors, of whom I was one, called for a fuller public debate. We said that we supported co-operation with Washington, but warned against supporting policies that were doomed to failure. The public welcomed our call.

Since then, things in Iraq have not gone well. Last week President Bush took the unusual step of intervening personally on the telephone to persuade Iraqi leaders to compromise on the draft constitution - to no effect whatsoever.

The 52 ambassadors were criticised for not putting forward an alternative policy for Iraq. It is easy to reply, "We weren't the ones who got into this mess." But I, for one, have tried to be more constructive than that. I argued last year for the Saudi proposal to replace the coalition forces in Iraq with Arab and Muslim forces under UN control. The coalition ignored the proposal, and it is probably no longer a starter. Clarke, who spoke in Parliament in 2003 of "bringing in other countries", now says merely that "disengagement from Iraq has to be part of a much larger and more sophisticated political programme than we are delivering at the moment".

There are other ideas around. Robert Dreyfuss, a US analyst, recently argued for an international conference on the lines of the 1973 Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. A Russian proposal to this effect has been on the table for some time. The process would be built on confidence-building measures, an amnesty, and withdrawal of forces to established bases followed by unconditional talks. Dreyfuss suggests Ayham al-Samarra'i, a former minister of electricity, as one man who could be a key link between the resistance and the occupation.

Another US analyst, Jeffrey Laurenti, points out that the legal authority for the coalition presence in Iraq in Security Council Resolution 1546 expires at the end of the year. If the issue of extending its term is brought to the fore in the election that is due at the same time, the result will be a democratic decision giving the coalition either a mandate to stay or a respectable exit strategy.

It's easy to pick holes in any of these ideas. But beggars can't be choosers. Some way out of the disastrous situation has to be found - disastrous because it is damaging to Britain and America and costly in lives and money, and because it is pulling Iraq further and further towards civil war, which would be a catastrophe for Iraq and possibly for the whole region.

British policy appears to be totally passive, on the principle that it is foolish for the pillion passenger to try to grab the handlebars. When did Geoff Hoon or John Reid last meet Donald Rumsfeld for a serious discussion of policy?

Here is a modest suggestion. The Prime Minister should set up a task force in government, led by a senior military man or civil servant rather than a politician, to plan an exit strategy from Iraq. It would look in depth at these ideas, and others, and seek to develop them in co-operation with a wide range of other countries under eventual UN leadership. It would discuss the problem with all the parties concerned, including the so-called insurgents.

I suppose any such initiative would be heralded by a fanfare from No 10, but it would not be a revolutionary concept. It would simply use Whitehall for what it does best, making recommendations on high policy drawing on the expertise of the Foreign Office and other departments, the intelligence services and the military. How reassuring it would be if we were to learn that serious work of this kind is already going on behind the scenes. Alas, I doubt it.

Oliver Miles is a former British ambassador to Libya