Politicians need to convey the impression at all times that they know what they're doing, even when they don't. That's what they're paid for, after all. But every so often the mask of competence slips. They reveal, in a flash, that they simply haven't a clue; that they're winging it, making it up as they go along, hoping no-one will notice.
This moment came yesterday when the government announced that it was "full throttle" to the handover of power to an Iraqi civil administration on June 30. "Six weeks to sovereignty" – that's the message coming from the US-led coalition. We've done the job, now it's time to hand over to the grateful people of free Iraq. All we need to do, it seems, is send a few more troops to train the Iraqi military, stage elections, and then everyone can live happily ever after.
Sounds simple, but this promise of a handover to an Iraqi civil administration was announced less than 24 hours after Izzedin Salim, the head of the Iraqi governing council, was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad. It was announced as US troops besieged the holy city of Kerbala, and on the day Israel continued to defy the civilized world by bulldozing Palestinian homes in Gaza.
Tony Blair, meanwhile, was in Ankara, promising that Britain would not "cut and run", and that he was ready to send 3000 more troops to some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq. The promise of imminent "Iraqi-ization" also coincided with a declaration from the Pentagon that America would retain indefinite command of security forces in Iraq after hand-over on June 30.
So, there you have it: we are sending more troops in to get the troops out. We are giving sovereignty to the people of Iraq, so that America can continue to run the place. Iraq can choose any government it wants so long as it is pro-American. The Middle East road-map has been handed to Ariel Sharon so that he can bulldoze Palestinian refugee camps from the face of it. When Bosnian Serbs did this kind of thing it was called ethnic cleansing.
This "full throttle" is beginning to look rather like the reverse gear that Tony Blair promised us he didn't have. It is full ahead in reverse. An exit strategy that doesn't have an exit. There is a date and nothing else. The same fatuous logic that got us into Iraq is being used to get us out.
The Iraqi National Council, including as it does discredited figures like the Jordanian fraudster, Ahmed Chalabi, has no legitimacy. There is no civilian police force and no army in Iraq because the Americans disbanded it. The prisons are still run by the Americans, and are likely to remain so. The coalition will delay elections until it can be sure they will result in a pro-American administration.
They clearly haven't a clue how they get out of this mess. Oil prices are rising on the back of it and could even threaten the world economic recovery. The Iraq disaster isn't coming to an end – it's only just begun. The invasion has left the entire region in flames.
Neighboring states are deeply worried about the possible fragmentation of Iraq if and when the US-led forces withdraw. The Kurds in the north have made clear that they have no intention of living in the Islamic state which the majority Shia population in the south of Iraq is bent on establishing. The Sunni Muslims in the middle are also opposed to an Iranian-style Shia theocracy – though the appalling behavior of the US forces has temporarily made them comrades in arms with their historic Shia foe. Meanwhile, Iraq has become a magnet for every Islamic militant sect in the Middle East – a University of Paradise.
The coalition tries to wish all this away simply by ignoring it. Western leaders incant tired homilies about Iraq becoming a "beacon" of liberal democracy in the Middle East, apparently unaware of the irony of a military occupation claiming democratic credentials. They know they're talking nonsense – and they know that we know they're talking nonsense. But they say it anyway, because they think it is what we want to hear and that if they repeat it often enough, we'll start to believe it.
Our political classes have a kind of narcissistic tunnel vision which renders them incapable of seeing beyond their own ambition. They observe themselves reflected in the cracked mirror of public opinion, held up to them by their pollsters. They then say whatever they think will make that image look more attractive, even if it makes a nonsense of what they have been saying hitherto.
Americans have an astonishing capacity to suspend disbelief in their government, even after the abuse scandals in Abu Ghraib. Most of them still believe that Iraq was behind the Manhattan bombings. But even in America, support for the war has slumped from over 70% to 48% in the recent polls, and George W Bush's popularity has collapsed in line. Tony Blair has become a pariah in his own party.
So, George W Bush and Tony Blair have stopped posing as great war leaders and liberators because they realize that doesn't sell any more. Now they are trying to remake themselves by posing as peace-brokers. But even if they are sincere, there is no-one to hand over to.
It is the stupidity with which this war has been prosecuted which marks it out from all other conflicts of recent times. Even Vietnam made more sense. It is the dumb war. The product of an administration in the White House which is not only ignorant of history but is unable or unwilling to recognize the present.
The invasion was based on an intelligence fantasy that Iraq was bristling with weapons of mass destruction; on a lie that Saddam Hussein had been behind 9/11; on a conceit that a war could be fought without casualties; and on an illusion that Iraq would spontaneously adopt western-style democracy in a region where it is the exception rather than the rule.
Bush and Blair have finally got the message that Iraq has been a catastrophe for the west and a tragedy for the Middle East. But being politicians, they possess that ability to reinterpret the past to suit the political needs of the present. Thus Tony Blair retrospectively changes his war aims from weapons of mass destruction to regime change. Bush is now justifying the war in terms of the terrorist threat posed by an unstable Iraq, even though the terrorism and instability have almost entirely been a result of the invasion.
And now, at the very moment their entire strategy is in ruins, they are suggesting that they can just move on. Job done. Hand over the difficult bits to Iraq – or the UN if it is daft enough to return – leaving just the oil and the guns in American hands. And they think they can wish it all away in time for the presidential elections in November and then the British general election next May/June. They could be in for a nasty surprise.
Copyright © 2004 Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited.