We cannot afford to let the US fail in Iraq

A formula must be found, acceptable to the US and its critics alike, to prevent the disaster happening
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The Independent Online

Ah, the simple, very human joy of uttering those four little words, "I told you so". Events in Iraq are now unfolding more or less exactly as predicted by those of us who opposed the war, guided by no expertise other than common sense. No weapons of mass destruction of course. No thought-out plan for the post-Saddam era, and no end in sight to the sapping guerrilla war. And as for that sprouting of Jeffersonian democracy in the heart of the Middle East predicted by Washington's suddenly silent neo-conservatives - in Iraq right now there's barely electricity, let alone democracy.

But it is all very well to detest the current American leadership, to relish the spectacle of an arrogant occupying power getting its come-uppance, and to deliver lectures to the effect that since the US made the mess, it is up to the US to clean it up. Schadenfreude is no substitute for a policy. Like it or not, the invasion took place and cannot be undone. The worst thing now - in terms of Middle Eastern policy, international efforts to combat terrorism and the West's broader relations with the Islamic world - would be for America's adventure in Iraq to end in disaster.

If ever constructive and creative diplomacy were needed, it is now. A formula must be found, acceptable to the US and its critics alike, to prevent that disaster from happening.

The good news is that the parties are acknowledging that there is a problem. George Bush pledges that America will "stay the course" (what course, one may ask) and continues to present, ever less plausibly, the "Battle of Iraq" as a small chapter in the "war against terrorism". But behind the scenes, the White House is putting out feelers for help. And to secure that help, it is turning to the same UN whose views Bush scorned when he went to war six months ago.

Today the Bush crowd is in a hole. Everyone, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld, knows that more troops are needed in Iraq - perhaps double the 150,000-odd there at present. Unfortunately there aren't any more US troops to send, nor will there be unless the military is expanded or the draft is reinstated. Nor, with huge federal budget deficits as far as the eye can see, is there the money to pay for them, not to mention the "several tens of billions" of dollars of reconstruction work which Paul Bremer, Washington's proconsul in Baghdad, says is essential next year alone.

And so the diplomatic logjam is starting to shift. Richard Armitage, the deputy Secretary of State and right-hand man of Colin Powell, has floated the notion of a larger force in Iraq that would be under the sponsorship of the UN and approved by the Security Council, but under a US commander. France, leader of the anti-war faction on the Security Council before the war, is starting to talk about something similar, an international force and a provisional government under the aegis of the UN.

But that is as far as the good news extends. For a deal to be struck, each side must truly understand the position of the other, and that has not yet happened. The hardliners may be on the defensive in Washington. However, they still dominate the administration's policy councils, and have still to grasp the extent to which their behaviour has alienated most of the rest of the world. The notion that other countries will help out only if the US cedes some authority simply escapes them.

As for the French and other opponents of the war, they continue to underestimate the visceral dislike of the UN on the part of Mr Bush and his closest advisers, not to mention the political difficulties of an about-face. To turn to the UN now would be tacit admission that the go-it-alone policy before the war was mistaken - and the Democrats vying to replace him in 2004 will seize on it for all it's worth. It is up to the diplomats to devise a formula for increased UN involvement that allows all parties to save face.

But even if they succeed, what then? The temptation is to present the world body, so grievously slighted before the war, as the natural solution for the conflict's bloody and chaotic aftermath. But suppose Mr Bush does eat an uncharacteristic helping of humble pie and offers real authority to an expanded UN mission in Iraq. The UN's cumbersome structures and ponderous decision-making are ill-suited to what would be the biggest challenge in its history.

Nor is there any guarantee that Iraqis resisting the current US occupation would be any friendlier to a UN force which, however it is dressed up, would in reality be dominated by the US. By the same token, French, Indians, Pakistanis and whoever else took part would probably be as much at risk as the Americans are now.

The other option is, to use the phrase doing the rounds in Washington these days, to "hand Iraq back to the Iraqis". Let us charitably assume this is not merely a code word for speedy pull-out, as "Vietnamisation" was 30 years ago in America's last great foreign policy disaster. The problem is, which Iraqis? The murder yesterday of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, a leading politician in the majority Shia community, is proof - were any further proof needed - of the difficulty in establishing "democracy" in ethnically and tribally splintered Iraq.

We warned about such things of course before the invasion. Today, however, "I told you so" is no answer. For America and for all of us, there is no easy exit from Iraq.