I thought it couldn’t get worse, but it just has. The Iraq Study Group, far from showing a way out of the crisis, has become a new dimension of it. The wise men confirmed that the war is unwinnable, but didn’t didn’t say how to stop their leader fighting it.
The Baker-Hamilton Report, published last week, made three things clear: that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating rapidly; that it is undermining the stability of the entire region; and that America – thinking America – has had enough of it.
It is unprecedented for such a defeatist document to be prepared and disseminated so publicly while American soldiers are still fighting a war. Yet the two leaders responsible for Iraq – George W Bush and Tony Blair remain obstinately in denial and defiantly in office. This means diplomatic paralysis, military stalemate, and further incalculable loss of life.
It is the worst of both worlds. America has lost the war, but is determined to fight on. It remains embroiled in a bloody conflict, even though it has abandoned its war aims. No one believes in the beacon of democracy anymore, or that American and British troops can somehow end the carnage. We are now in Iraq for only one reason: to protect the vanity of two powerful men.
I can’t think of any historical example of political leaders – in Western democracies – remaining in office after being so completely discredited in war time. H.H. Asquith resigned as Prime Minister in 1916 over his conduct of the First World War; Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940 after Germany invaded the Netherlands; Anthony Eden resigned after the Suez debacle, claiming ill health. Even Richard Nixon threw in the towel eventually, though the Vietnam war was only one of the disasters on his watch.
Resignation performs a vital function in a democracy: it allows a country that’s in a hole to stop digging. But far from hanging up their spades, Bush and Blair have just moved in the heavy earth-moving equipment and seem intent on burying themselves and the West in the graveyard of their own incompetence.
George W. Bush said in response to the ISG that he was determined to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq and to ‘get the job done’ whatever that means. He even announced that “we’re hunting down al Qaeda and we’re bringing them to justice.” I nearly about fell off my chair at that one.
If al Qaeda is in Iraq, it is only because the Americans are there – Osama bin Laden had nothing but contempt for Saddam Hussein, and he had no terrorist training camps in Iraq, according to the CIA. If Bush had really wanted to hunt down al Qaeda he should have stayed the course in Afghanistan and ensured that bin Laden and co weren’t able to establish their safe havens over the border in Pakistan.
It is an insult to the intelligence of the American public to claim that Iraq is all about 9/11 and al Qaeda. Unfortunately, the US press corps tends to leave its collective intellect on the hatstand before entering the Presidential briefing room and has allowed the President to get away with this canard. Tony Blair would never dare suggest at a UK press conference that Iraq was about hunting down al Qaeda, because he would be laughed out of the room.
Mind you, Blair had no shortage of supporters in the UK press at the launch of this absurd and tragic venture back in March 2003. I well recall the Sun telling us that there would be no casualties in this high tech war. Editors and commentators throughout the UK took the line that, well, there were no sales in opposing “our boys” when they went into action. I’m not going to name names – the Times columnist Matthew Parris did that in a devastating piece six weeks ago.
As the invasion fireworks began, most in the UK press decided that, since America was invincible, there was no point in being on the losing side. That WMD was certain to be found in Iraq and further evidence would surely emerge of Saddam’s monstrous mistreatment of his own people. It was thought by many that Iraqis would soon see the virtues of democracy – and if they didn’t the US would pump in enough dollars to persuade them. With all that oil under the ground, Iraq would become wealthy democracy, a beacon for the entire Middle East.
It seemed a no brainer. And it was, literally, since it betrayed a lack of grey matter. The idea of marching into Baghdad, on a “crusade” against terror, was always lunacy. It was madness to think that you could surgically remove Saddam and his Baathist cronies and then let the free market sort out the future of this divided dictatorship.
There were critical voices, including this newspaper, which argued consistently that al Qaeda was not based in Iraq; that the UN weapons inspectors should have been allowed to finish the job; that invading a Muslim country would make international terrorism worse and inflame he Middle East. But we were drowned out by the war fever.
Of course, Saddam Hussein was a ruthless tyrant, but it was up to his own people to remove him. The US neo Conservatives who conceived the war strategy – Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle – seemed to believe that Saddam would topple painlessly, like the dictators of Eastern Europe, and that a liberated people would spontaneously erect the institutions of a liberal democracy.
And maybe they would have, ultimately. But by trying to speed up history and “remake the world” as Bush remarked before his premature declaration of victory in the battle of Baghdad, the Americans made the oldest mistake in the military book: they thought the people would welcome the military occupation of their country.
America broke Iraq, but it can’t mend it. The Iraq Study Group has tried to put some of the pieces back together again, but not even the glue of all-party support in Congress can make it stick.
Meanwhile, in Iraq the insurgents – a collection of religious fanatics, unemployed soldiers, hardened terrorists and former Baath Party loyalists – is taking on and beating the greatest military power in history: America. And with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they may be about to do the double.
It gives me no satisfaction to see the most powerful democracies humbled in this way. We will all suffer the consequences of the Bush/Blair madness, as militant Islamism gains strength from America’s defeat. The world really will be a more dangerous place after the collapse of the Iraqi state. But there is no alternative now but to get out – as fast as possible.