Don't be fooled a second time. They told you Britain must invade Iraq because of its weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong. Now they say British troops must stay in Iraq because otherwise it will collapse into chaos.
This second lie is infecting everyone. It is spouted by Labour and Tory opponents of the war and even by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell. Its axiom is that western soldiers are so competent that, wherever they go, only good can result. It is their duty not to leave Iraq until order is established, infrastructure rebuilt and democracy entrenched.
Note the word "until". It hides a bloodstained half century of western self-delusion and arrogance. The white man's burden is still alive and well in the skies over Baghdad (the streets are now too dangerous). Soldiers and civilians may die by the hundred. Money may be squandered by the million. But Tony Blair tells us that only western values enforced by the barrel of a gun can save the hapless Mussulman from his own worst enemy, himself.
The first lie at least had tactical logic. The Rumsfeld doctrine was to travel light, hit hard and get out. Neoconservatives might fantasise over Iraq as a democratic Garden of Eden, a land re-engineered to stability and prosperity. Harder noses were content to dump the place in Ahmad Chalabi's lap and let it go to hell. Had that happened, I suspect there would have been a bloody settling of scores but by now a tripartite republic hauling itself back to peace and reconstruction. Iraq is, after all, one of the richest nations on earth.
Instead the invasion came with tanks of glue. Decisions were taken, with British compliance, to make Iraq an experiment in "ground zero" nation-building. All sensible advice was ignored on the assumption that whatever America and Britain did would seem better than Saddam, and better than our doing nothing. Kipling's demons danced through Downing Street. Britain did not want to colonise Iraq. Yet somehow Blair's "fighting not for territory but for values" needed territory after all, as if to prove itself more than a soundbite.
The scenes broadcast yesterday from Basra show how far authority in southern Iraq has collapsed. This is tragic. When I was there two years ago the south was, in its own terms, a success. While the Americans were unleashing mayhem to the north, the British were methodically applying Lugard-style colonialism in Basra. They formed alliances with sheikhs, bribed warlords and won hearts and minds by going unarmoured. There was optimism in the air.
British policy demanded one thing, momentum towards local sovereignty and early withdrawal. There was no such momentum. An ever more confident insurrection was allowed first to impede and then dictate the timetable of withdrawal. Sunni terrorists now hold American and British policy in their grip. The result has been an inevitable civil collapse. We do not even know on which side are the Basra police.
The British government - and opposition - is in total denial. Ministerial boasts can't conceal the gloom of private briefings. Blair has done what no prime minister should do. He has put his soldiers at a foreign power's mercy. First that power was America. Now, according to the defence secretary, John Reid, it is a band of brave but desperate Iraqis entombed in Baghdad's Green Zone. He says he will stay until they request him to go, when local troops are trained and loyal and infrastructure is restored. That means doomsday. Everyone knows it.
Iraqis of my acquaintance are numb at the violence unleashed by the west's failure to impose order on their country. They are baffled at the ineptitude, the counter-productive cruelty of the arrests, bombings and suppressions. They are past caring whether it was better or worse under Saddam. They know only that more people a month are being killed than at any time since the massacres of the early 1990s. If death and destruction are any guide, Britain's pre-invasion policy of containment was far more successful than occupation.
Infrastructure is not being restored. Baghdad's water, electricity and sewers are in worse shape than a decade ago. Huge sums - such as the alleged $1bn for military supplies - are being stolen and stashed in Jordanian banks. The new constitution is a dead letter except the clauses that are blatantly sharia. These are already being enforced de facto in Shia areas.
British soldiers are in a war over whose course, conduct and outcome their leaders have no control. Their government's exit strategy is no longer realistic, indeed is dishonest. Talk of reducing troop levels from 8,000 to 3,000 next year has been abandoned. Everyone seems on the wrong planet. Meanwhile daily groping for good news and the sickening litany of the bad is reminiscent of Vietnam. Nobody reads Barbara Tuchman on folly.
Signalling withdrawal would, it is said, give a green light to the gangs and private militias, to revenge attacks, ethnic cleansing and even partition. That threat is no longer meaningful since these are all happening anyway. The militias have reportedly infiltrated at least half the police and internal security forces in each area. Barely a tenth of the army is considered loyal to the central authority. That a Basra police station should be vulnerable to al-Sadr irregulars is appalling.
The 150,000 foreign troops on Iraqi soil are overwhelmingly committed to self-protection. They do not do law and order any more. Power is finding its new locus, in the mafias, sheikhdoms, militias and warlords that flourish amid anarchy. Where there is no security, the gunman is always king.
The alleged reason for occupying Iraq was to build security and democracy. We have dismantled the first and failed to construct the second. Iraq is a fiasco without parallel in recent British policy. Now we are told that we must "stay the course" or worse will befall. This is code for ministers refusing to admit a mistake and hoping someone else will after they are gone. By then the Kurds will be more detached, the Sunnis more enraged and the Shias more fundamentalist. A hundred British soldiers will have died.
America left Vietnam and Lebanon to their fate. They survived. We left Aden and other colonies. Some, such as Malaya and Cyprus, saw bloodshed and partition. We said rightly that this was their business. So too is Iraq for the Iraqis. We have made enough mess there already.
British soldiers may indeed be the best in the world. But why then is Blair driving them to humiliation?
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited