Steve Richards: We made a mistake going into Iraq, and we would make a mistake getting out now

The decisions must be based on what is happening in Iraq, the strength of the government and army
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How tempting it is to draw wider lessons from the calamity of Iraq. In Britain, politicians who supported the war now call for changes in the country's servile relationship with the US. In the US and Britain, there are growing cries for the troops to pull out of Iraq on the basis that because it was a disaster for us to go in, it would be better if we got out. More widely in Britain and the US, authoritative figures argue for more robust constitutional checks to prevent such a nightmare from recurring.

I wish such lessons could be drawn from the ashes of Baghdad, but none of them stands up to detailed scrutiny. Superficially, the catastrophe in Iraq reinforces the argument about the delusional special relationship: Poor old Britain, unable to run a train service let alone equip its troops properly, dances once more to America's tunes.

As a pro-European, I have got close to arguing that Iraq makes the case for Britain moving closer to Europe and becoming less intoxicated with the US. But Britain would not have moved closer to Europe if Blair had opposed the war. Europe was split over the conflict. Germany and France opposed the war. Others, including medium-sized powers such as Spain and Italy, were supporters. Rather than establishing the case for a common European foreign policy, Iraq highlights how difficult it will be to get close to such a situation.

In relation to Britain's dealings with the US, David Cameron argues that Britain should be a candid friend rather than slavishly loyal. Yet Cameron is surrounded in the upper echelons of his party by some of the war's most enthusiastic advocates. Cameron speaks easily in generalisations about the relationship with the US. The specifics matter more.

The same applies to candidates for Labour's deputy leadership. Harriet Harman calls for a wider dialogue in the formation of foreign policy, including Britain's relationship with the US. What does that mean? Presumably this is code for the fact that the war was a disaster. In which case Ms Harman needs to find a form of words to criticise the substance of foreign policy, rather than the style in which it was framed. No government is going to allow a focus group to determine foreign policy. Other candidates call for a review of foreign policy, but that does not get anyone any further either.

Iraq provides no longer-term lessons about Britain's relationship with the US. It was a unique moment in which a divided US administration took a fatal wrong turn, supported by a British Prime Minister who believed in "liberating" people by force and was fearful of appearing anti-American because of his party's vote-losing past.

Soon, though, Bush will be gone and possibly a more moderate Republican or progressive Democrat will be at the helm. If President Hillary Clinton sought to intervene in Darfur, would a British government oppose the move on the grounds that Iraq destroyed the special relationship? I doubt if it will be as simple as that. British governments will still, at times, support the US, and, on occasion, will be right to do so. It was just wrong to do so in relation to Iraq, in the same way that Harold Wilson was right to keep a distance over Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Robin Cook and Clare Short wrote brilliantly argued books about the build-up to the war. They concluded there was an urgent need for constitutional reform to prevent a prime minister taking Britain to war in the same way again. Yet the checks were in place as Blair set out on his course. No one was willing to use them. Those that failed to do so included Cook and Short.

Both of them deserve immense credit for seeing through the trap Blair had laid for himself in his determination to be Bush's main ally. Only they had the nerve to raise the issue regularly in cabinet meetings.

Short has been proved right in her early prophetic warnings that Afghanistan would implode if the military focus was diverted to Iraq. Cook was right about the unreliable intelligence and in his warnings that the war would fuel terrorism. But they never acted together. Imagine what the impact of a joint resignation might have been. What if they had sown the seeds of doubts that were in the minds of other cabinet ministers? Parliament could have stopped it too. There was a vote on the eve of war. Blair got away with it because he had the support of most Conservatives, and Labour MPs did not want to bring him down as a Prime Minister when they were not wholly sure that catastrophe would follow.

No doubt when Brown is Prime Minister he will announce that Parliament will have the automatic right to vote in advance of war. It is bizarre in a democracy that such a sanction is not in place already. But if the sanction had been in place in 2003, the war against Iraq would still have gone ahead because Parliament chose to vote in favour of it.

Over time there will be many lessons arising from the war. They will be different for the US that initiated the invasion and for its British sidekick that chose to support it. For now, though, there is only one lesson that needs urgent reflection.

Powerful countries should not act in a panic. It is said of Bush that he contemplated invading Iraq only after September 11, as if that is a justification. Diverting resources from Afghanistan and breaking up the international coalition by attacking Iraq was a deranged decision.

Similarly, after Bush made his overgeneralised and simplistic speech about the axis of evil in the spring of 2002, Britain knew for sure that Iraq was in Bush's sights. Too quickly Blair rushed to give private assurance that he would support military action. All kinds of factors fuelled these decisions, most of them nothing to do with the evidence of what was happening in Iraq.

Now there is a similar danger of deserting Iraq without proper consideration. In the US, President Bush is alarmed by a possible rout in the mid-term elections and a near paralysing level of personal unpopularity. In Britain, Blair faces mutinous rumblings in the Army, and knows the clock ticks on his leadership.

These are not good reasons for pulling out of Iraq. The decisions must be based forensically on what is happening in Iraq, the strength of the government and the army, the degree to which a political settlement is more possible with the support of foreign troops or without them. Those of us who opposed the war cannot assume that leaving Iraq to its own devices is the safest option for its terrorised people.

For now that is the single lesson from the calamity. We went into Iraq for the wrong reasons. We should not leave Iraq for the wrong reasons too.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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