Bush must accept bloody reality and follow our fumbling retreat
The American and British armies do not have to withdraw from Iraq. They are powerful and can stay as long as they wish, even if entombed like French legionnaires in desert forts and sustained at great cost in lives and money.
Their governments are a different matter. They need reasons for occupying foreign countries and now face humiliation in the greatest war of ideological intervention since Vietnam. They are praying for their armies to save them from this humiliation.
This week David Petraeus, the talented American general in Baghdad, reports on the progress of his “surge” strategy to an impatient Congress. Two thirds of Americans have joined two thirds of world opinion in wanting a swift American withdrawal, defined as inside a year. Petraeus’s predicament is therefore agonising. He cannot possibly offer victory. He can offer only defeat or a desperate clinging on, as now. For George Bush, his commander-in-chief, only the last is imaginable. Petraeus must therefore forget about a better yesterday or a better tomorrow, and concentrate on today.
Here he is trapped. The more optimistic his progress report, the more it will support clinging on as now. Bush and Gordon Brown will grasp at any straw that allows them to postpone withdrawal. They grasp at the success of supporting the Sunni Islamic Army against Al-Qaeda cells in Anbar province, despite Bush having to describe as “our friends” Saddamist thugs whom he spent four years trying to eliminate, notably in Falluja.
Bush and Brown grasp at the lower kill rate that has followed the fortifying and garrisoning of “forward operating bases”, mostly in the Sunni suburbs of Baghdad. This has turned American troops into mercenaries defending the Sunnis against Shi’ite militias and police. But it has brought respite to parts of Baghdad and enabled the Americans to talk of the “political mosaic” of Iraq, of sheikhs and tribes and local nation building from the ground up. There is even a murmur of that formerly unmentionable word, partition.
Petraeus is, by all accounts, too intelligent a general to let these straws become an easy reason for hanging on indefinitely. He knows that any soldier can flood a theatre with armour and claim to have it under control, that success can be assessed only when that control ends. He knows there is no endgame to the surge. He has all but given up on a “retrained” Iraqi army as future guardian of order in Iraq. Like the police it has mostly been hijacked by the Shi’ites.
Petraeus knows he must also guard against the most desperate reason for staying: “After me, the deluge.” With no political progress in Iraq, the longer the stay the greater the deluge. The broken-backed Iraqi government is useless, reduced to pleading for the coalition to stay largely for its own protection. This is the trap into which the surge strategy walked from the start. It was militarily excellent but politically vacuous.
The resolution in Iraq can start only when the state of denial in the White House and Downing Street ends. This hurdle was well illustrated by the false parallel drawn by Bush last month with Vietnam, from which he believed America withdrew too soon.
In Vietnam America was aiding an ally against an external foe who sought to conquer and enslave it. The American occupation of Iraq has been utterly different. It was doomed not just by its cruelty and ineptitude but because its neoconservative objective – a pro-western, pro-Israeli, capitalist democracy – was ludicrously utopian. Occupation spurred insurgency and destroyed order. The only real parallel was that in both Vietnam and Iraq intervention led to the outcome America least wanted. In the former it expanded communist influence in southeast Asia. In Iraq it is likely to replace a secular, antiIranian regime with a clerical, pro-Iranian one.
Meanwhile, the degradation of Iraq has made it the most desperate and dangerous country in the world. A once-rich nation is as poor, chaotic and devoid of hope as the worst in sub-Saharan Africa. Two million people have fled their homes. More than half the professional class has disappeared. Those who have been turned back at the borders face famine, disease and murder in camps disowned by the Americans and the British. Utilities are not repaired and operate at or below their level under Saddam Hussein. Cholera has appeared and child mortality is worse than during sanctions in the 1990s. Iraq’s heritage and its ancient Mesopotamian sites are looted.
None of this is getting any better. If Petraeus could offer a new political dispensation to run alongside a gradual reduction of his surge, he might be justified in proclaiming optimism. He cannot do this, as a rush of congressional reports has indicated – notably two indictments of current policy from the Government Accountability Office and the National Intelligence Estimate. None of the political items in Congress’s 18 “benchmarks” required of the surge has been met. The constitution brokered last year by Zalmay Khalilzad, the then US ambassador, proposed ways of sharing oil revenue and devolving security. Even that is in ruins.
The one thing Petraeus can offer Washington is a smokescreen of partial success behind which to begin a rolling disengagement: a steady withdrawal of units to bases, transferring control in each enclave to whichever militia group enjoys local loyalty. He would make the success of the surge a reason for withdrawing rather than for staying.
For all the abuse thrown by Americans at the British retreat in Basra, it offers a test of such withdrawal. Blood has undoubtedly flowed. Two newly autonomous provincial governors have been murdered. The Iran-backed Badr brigade has fought the Mahdists over the spoils of victory. Deals have been cut with the Iraqi army and the militia-dominated police.
The result is hardly democracy but full-scale civil war has not broken out and living conditions appear no worse than when Britain was supposedly in charge. Now that the chief targets of insurgency machismo, British soldiers, have departed there is a chance of a political equilibrium that might enable the people of Basra to rebuild their lives and accept aid for their battered infrastructure. Such a policy should have been put to the test three years ago.
Rather than criticise the British for cutting and running, the Americans might study how Iraqi factions have filled the power vacuum. If relative peace is sustained with British troops confined to base, the same might apply even among the more divided communities of the north.
Sooner or later Petraeus will have to try some version of the British way. Wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan are not simple fights over territory. They are messy interventions in other peoples’ affairs that almost always yield a bloody nose. The American public has judged that whatever Bush was trying to do in Iraq he has failed and should cut his losses – and theirs.
If the price is high, if parts of Iraq see yet more factional bloodshed after a withdrawal, Americans might argue that this was the inevitable fault of past errors. America had done its bit. It toppled Saddam and tried to postpone the subsequent settling of old scores. It failed to install a political framework to achieve this, but so be it. The sting of occupation must be drawn from the wound of Iraq.
Of course the best face must be put on withdrawal. Those whose arrival led to more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths owe it to their victims to minimise any more. That especially applies to the hapless agents of occupation, such as Iraqi interpreters and officials, whose lives are at risk. Told that the invasion was to restore order and justice, they are entitled to feel more than cheated. They are entitled to asylum.
Iraq has been a disaster, an illegal act crassly perpetrated by supposedly honourable powers. It shows what happens when crackpot idealism breaks from the realm of think tanks and journalism and penetrates the body politic. It validates the remark of the philosopher John Gray that “modern politics is really a chapter in the history of religion”.
Last month the British began fumbling their way towards an escape from this disaster. The danger for Petraeus is that he digs a deeper hole.
The paperback edition of Simon Jenkins’s Thatcher and Sons, updated to include Gordon Brown’s accession, has just been published by Penguin.