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Invasion apologists are using cliché camouflage


We heard of the gain being worth the pain, the omelettes needing broken eggs, and the silent majority

WHEN war leaders cannot play with guns they play with verbs. They toy with future conditionals. They clothe their grammar in subjunctives, exhortations and aspirations. “If it turns out OK” supplants “It will be so”. War words are safer when drawn from the wishing well of hope.
This week Tony Blair made what seemed a crucial shift in outlook. From the deck of his Bermuda yacht he wrote to The Observer using Macbeth’s conditional: “Were we to fail . . . ” He quickly added, “which we shall not . . . ”, but the thought had escaped and there was no Lady Macbeth to shout, “We, fail!” There was only Cherie passing the suncream.

We are all in the prediction game, politicians, soldiers, pundits, columnists. People crave oracles. They want to know the future, whether they learn it from the stars or from newspapers. They want to free their lives of risk and hire others to do so.

I never thought that the Iraq invasion could fail as a military operation. It was inconceivable that an American army would suffer defeat in open battle. I certainly expected the defenders of Baghdad to put up more of an initial fight, rather than slink away and await American unpopularity to launch their guerrilla campaign. As for the general “pessimistic” prediction, it remains robust, that a pre-emptive invasion with no UN approval would draw America into a prolonged conflict whose costs would outweigh any external benefit from the fall of Saddam.

In his briefing last night George Bush, like Mr Blair on Sunday, uttered many Churchillian phrases. But both men failed to give any coherent account of the Iraq strategy over the next three months to “handover”. Mr Blair still seems like a man frozen in the Pentagon’s headlights. Groping for something on which to pin his rhetoric, his latest recourse is to neo-McCarthyism. He who is not with him is now against him. Those who disagree with his policy are tricoteuses, gloating by the guillotine as coalition heads plop into the basket. They are bringing comfort to the enemy, encouraging “the retreat that is the fanatics’ victory”, a defeat for “civilisation and democracy everywhere”.

Such flowery language merely raises the political cost of a withdrawal that Mr Blair now unwisely refers to as defeat. He used to call it victory. Naturally those critics whose predictions have turned out to be true can feel vindicated. Iraq is a highly polarised argument and harsh words have been used on both sides. But nobody can derive pleasure from the death, insecurity and poverty which the coalition has brought at least to central Iraq. I was as sickened by the mutilation of four Americans in Fallujah as I was by the US Marines’ gunship killing of at least 400 Fallujans in retaliation. Why Downing Street felt obliged yesterday to give “full support” to what may yet prove to be a rerun of Vietnam’s My Lai massacre is a mystery.

No humane or sensible Briton wants to see Iraqis crushed by further catastrophe, at anyone’s hands. No one wants to see terrorists cheering each American reverse or the cause of world democracy undermined. Mr Blair’s collaboration in this adventure may have been reckless. But once Saddam was toppled I hoped that America and Britain might turn their aggression to good account. Having humiliated the Iraqis, they could now bring them jobs, reconstruction and a secure government, even if democracy might prove pie in the sky.

I believe in Mr Blair’s sincerity, if not his judgment. I do not attribute to him the treasonable motives he attributes to his critics. I cannot believe that he really approved the Pentagon’s post-invasion strategy. Too many senior Britons, both civilian and military, were involved in the abortive State Department alternative. Many are in total denial of what is happening in Iraq at present, as if it were nothing to do with them. They are shocked that Mr Blair’s constantly boasted friendship with Mr Bush has so little to show for it. “Liberated” Afghanistan and Iraq are both now listed as no-go areas by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Prime Minister’s euphoric predictions, repeated on Sunday, are proving false. Iraqi civilians and British soldiers are dying, with no noticeable gain to Britain’s domestic security or overseas interests. Mr Blair’s conviction that he could bring democracy to Iraq and peace to the region was as ill-founded as his belief in Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. He may take refuge in attacking his critics. But history will expect him to answer the charge which he lays at their door, that it was his involvement that helped to break up Iraq, undermined Middle East stability and had terrorists cheering across the world. His collusion in Mr Bush’s obsession with Iraq will remain a puzzle of modern history.

Mr Blair now hides behind a complacent hope that somehow the Americans will save his bacon. On Sunday he repeated his fantasy of an Iraq “governed democratically by the Iraqi people”, enjoying to the full human rights and the rule of law. (Why then is he so keen to hand power to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani?) He perhaps knows that hope pays no dues to reason. Optimism fears no Hutton inquiry. It is vulnerable only to disappointment, which can be blamed on the Americans or the Almighty.

Any fool can play this game. We can all “wish” for the Shia militias to disarm and for the Sunnis to cede land to the silent majority. We can all wish for women to walk free in a Baghdad street and for secular democracy to flower in the desert. When war is raging there is no point wasting ammunition on Mr Blair’s flying pigs.

The Americans and British are getting beat in Iraq. The disbanding of the Republican Guard and the Baath party removed the only custodians of secular authority. It meant that Iraq south of Kurdistan was bound sooner or later to fall to a shifting coalition of mafias, militias and mullahs. This outcome was brought on Mr Bush and Mr Blair by themselves alone, not by their critics or terrorist adversaries. They blew it and will be hounded from Iraq as the West was from Lebanon in 1983.

The truly dangerous question is how long Iraq’s neighbours dare allow anarchy to reign in Baghdad after the coalition withdraws, before they intervene to support their client factions.

Last week’s upsurge in violence was greeted by invasion apologists with the old Vietnam clichés. We heard of the peaceloving countryside, the “silent majority” of ordinary Iraqis, the gain being worth the pain, the omelettes needing broken eggs, the importance of looking beyond the short term. It is all good stuff, were there time. There is none. The incompetence of the coalition’s rule in Baghdad has run out of rope. The past week has been Iraq ’s Tet Offensive, an explosion of latent power that goads the coalition to violent retaliation, and feeds politically on the outcome.

Mr Blair should see Robert McNamara’s film, The Fog of War, during his stay in Washington. It demonstrates what happens when a leader’s wishful thinking loses all touch with reality in a distant war. Military history is full of chateau generals compounding their mistakes by taking intravenous optimism. They send ever more troops “over the top”, pleading no alternative and no surrender. The troops are just as dead at the end of the day. Victory is just as elusive.

I observed Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. It was a just war and its considerable risks were always governed by rational predictions. It was perhaps the last conflict in which there were ministers with some experience of the Second World War. The outcome was not gung-ho generals blundering about someone else’s country shooting from the hip. The conduct of the Falklands War was more that of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s workmanlike dove of peace, who “does not come to coo; he comes to brood and sit”.

The occupation of Iraq has been military madness. A nation cannot be driven to democracy by Cobras and Apaches. An orderly withdrawal is now urgent. Yet all Mr Blair can do is fantasise and abuse his critics.