Published on Wednesday, October 25, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
We Have Turned Iraq Into the Most Hellish Place on Earth
Armies claiming to bring prosperity have instead brought a misery worse than under the cruellest of modern dictators
by Simon Jenkins
British ministers landing in Aden in the 1960s were told always to make a reassuring speech. In view of the Arab insurrection, they should give a ringing pledge, "Britain will never, ever leave Aden". Britain promptly left Aden, in 1967 and a year earlier than planned. The last governor walked backwards up the steps to his plane, his pistol drawn against any last-minute assassin. Locals who had trusted him and worked with the British were massacred in their hundreds by the fedayeen.
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, was welcomed to London by the BBC on Monday with two documentaries recalling past British humiliations at the hands of Arabs, in Aden and Suez. It was not a message Salih wanted to hear. His government is retreating from its position in May, when it said that foreign forces should withdraw from 16 out of 18 provinces, including the south, by the end of this year. Tony Blair rejected this invitation to go and said he would "stay until the job is done". Salih would do well to remember what western governments do, not what they say.
Despite Suez and Aden, British foreign policy still lurches into imperial mode by default. An inherited belief in Britain's duty to order the world is triggered by some upstart ruler who must be suppressed, based on a vague desire to seek "regional stability" or protect a British interest. As Martin Woollacott remarks in his book After Suez, most people at the time resorted to denial. To them, "the worst aspect of the operation was its foolishness" rather than its wrongness. When asked by Montgomery what was his objective in invading the canal zone Eden replied, "to knock Nasser off his perch". Asked what then, Eden had no answer.
As for Iraq, the swelling chorus of born-again critics are likewise taking refuge not in denouncing the mission but in complaining about the mendacity that underpinned it and its incompetence. As always, turncoats attribute the failure of a once-favoured policy to another's inept handling of it. The truth is that the English-speaking world still cannot kick the habit of imposing its own values on the rest, and must pay the price for its arrogance.
US and UK policy in Iraq is now entering its retreat phrase. Where there is no hope of victory, the necessity for victory must be asserted ever more strongly. This was the theme of yesterday's unreal US press conference in Baghdad, identical in substance to one I attended there three years ago. There is talk of staying the course, of sticking by friends and of not cutting and running. Every day some general or diplomat hints at ultimatums, timelines and even failure - as did the British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, on Monday. But officially denial is all. For retreat to be tolerable it must be called victory.
The US and British are covering their retreat. Operation Together Forward II has been an attempt, now failed, to pacify Baghdad during Ramadan. In Basra, Britain is pursuing Operation Sinbad to win hearts and minds that it contrives constantly to lose. This may be an advance on Kissinger's bombing of Laos to cover defeat in Vietnam and Reagan's shelling of the Shouf mountains to cover his 1984 Beirut "redeployment" (two days after he had pledged not to cut and run). But retreat is retreat, even if it is called redeployment. Every exit strategy is unhappy in its own way.
Over Iraq the spin doctors are already at work. They are telling the world that the occupation will have failed only through the ingratitude and uselessness of the Iraqis themselves. The rubbishing of the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has begun in Washington, coupled with much talk of lowered ambitions and seeking out that foreign policy paradigm, "a new strongman". In May, Maliki signalled to Iraq's governors, commanders and militia leaders the need to sort out local differences and take control of their provincial destinies. This has failed. Maliki is only as strong as the militias he can control, which is precious few. He does not rule Baghdad, let alone Iraq. As for the militias, they are the natural outcome of the lawlessness caused by foreign occupation. They represent Iraqis desperately defending themselves from anarchy. It is now they who will decide Iraq's fate.
The only sensible post-invasion scenario was, ironically, that once attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, to topple Saddam Hussein, give a decapitated army to the Shias and get out at once. There would have been a brief and bloody settling of accounts and some new regime would have seized power. The outcome would probably have been partial or total Kurdish and Sunni secession, but by now a new Iraq confederacy might have settled down. Instead this same partition seems likely to follow a drawn-out and bloody civil conflict. It is presaged by the fall of Amara to the Mahdist militias this month - and the patent absurdity of the British re-occupying this town.
Washington appears to have given Maliki until next year to do something to bring peace to his country. Or what? America and Britain want to leave. As a settler said in Aden, "from the moment they knew we were leaving their loyalties turned elsewhere". Keeping foreign troops in Iraq will not "prevent civil war", as if they were doing that now. They are largely preoccupied with defending their fortress bases, their presence offering target practice for insurgents and undermining any emergent civil authority in Baghdad or the provinces. American and British troops may be in occupation but they are not in power. They have not cut and run, but rather cut and stayed.
The wretched Iraqis must wait as their cities endure civil chaos until one warlord or another comes out on top. In the Sunni region it is conceivable that a neo-Ba'athist secularism might gain the ascendancy. In the bitterly contested Shia areas, a fierce fundamentalism is the likely outcome. As for Baghdad, it faces the awful prospect of being another Beirut.
This country has been turned by two of the most powerful and civilised nations on Earth into the most hellish place on Earth. Armies claiming to bring democracy and prosperity have brought bloodshed and a misery worse than under the most ruthless modern dictator. This must be the stupidest paradox in modern history. Neither America nor Britain has the guts to rule Iraq properly, yet they lack the guts to leave.
Blair speaks of staying until the job is finished. What job? The only job he can mean is his own.
© Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2006