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A gradual pullout, starting now
Labour needs to have the guts to tell Blair to change policy on Iraq
Wednesday September 29, 2004
The British media spotlight on Iraq has understandably swung to kidnapping and murder of hostages in recent days, and now to the killing of British soldiers in Basra, and away from the disgrace of Abu Ghraib or the interesting affair of our ambassador in Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, who apparently was undiplomatic enough to say that President George Bush is the best recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida.
Abu Ghraib, and allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners or worse by British personnel, have more resonance in America and Britain, where they touch painfully and directly on our national honour, than in Iraq and the region. For those directly involved, they are overshadowed by the horrors of the past under Saddam Hussein and by the death of thousands killed by the invaders.
As for Sir Ivor, an ambassador's job is to defend the interests of his country and the policy of his government. Our ambassadors are, for the most part, wise and honourable men and women. When it becomes clear that the government's policy is not serving the country's interests, they are in an impossible position. An ambassador cannot always duck a question, and he couldn't have said that US policy in Iraq is right. It isn't.
Important and newsworthy though all these topics are, we should not let them distract us from the bigger picture, which Colin Powell has rightly described as "getting worse". The political settlement that brought fragile peace to Falluja has collapsed, and the Americans are again using heavy weapons, including air-to-ground missiles, inside the town, building up yet more hatred and problems for the future. Elsewhere, the daily killing of Iraqis and Americans goes on.
My Iraqi friends, assessing the difficulties they now face, usually put economic and employment problems number one, even before security. According to a new report by MEC International, results from donor pledges are poor. Last October, $33bn was pledged in Madrid, but of the US contribution of $18bn, for example, only $500m had been disbursed by July.
More reliance is being placed on future oil receipts. The 2004 budget foresees revenues from oil in 2005 and 2006 which would allow investment in reconstruction of various sectors at $5.3bn per year. High oil prices have raised expectations, but sabotage and looting of oil installations continue. The current oil output is not generating revenue at anything like that level. An increase in production capacity depends on investment by the international oil industry. However, a conference planned by the oil ministry for April has been indefinitely postponed because of security problems, and companies are unlikely to invest until the problems are overcome and a government of undisputed legitimacy is in place, presumably after elections at the beginning of next year. The cost implications of these problems for the coalition are obvious.
When your fingers are caught in the mangle you can't just walk away. If we left Iraq tomorrow, we would be rightly blamed for the chaos which would follow. The first thing to do is stop turning the handle, and then turn it back inch by inch. Our Iraq policy should be step-by-step disengagement, and we should start now. When the occupying powers draw back, as they did in Najaf, there is a chance for Iraqis to find political solutions to their problems; when the occupying powers remain centre stage, the result is that more blood is shed - British, American and Iraqi blood.
John Kerry's attacks on Bush "refusing to come clean with the American people" are a move in the right direction, even if the president is able to make a debating point on what Kerry said about the war in the past. We should welcome the change. We should also listen to Kofi Annan's speech to the UN general assembly, in which he said again what we all knew: the war on Iraq is illegal, and illegal acts by great powers gravely undermine the rule of law.
These new developments from time to time create a fleeting opportunity for our own government to start to recover its position. Let's hope the Labour party conference will have the guts to say it to the prime minister.
The issue is not so much, as Tony Blair put it to delegates yesterday, whether he should apologise for having been involved in the effort to remove Saddam. Nor is it even, as a protester claimed, that he has "blood on his hands". Stop worrying about the past, stop worrying about the use of intelligence and whether Blair acted in good faith, and grasp the reality. The policy has got to change.
· Oliver Miles is a former ambassador to Libya; in April he organised the letter signed by 52 former British ambassadors criticising George Bush and Tony Blair's Middle East policy