When Gordon Brown returned from his fact-finding tour of Iraq on Monday, he proclaimed the importance of learning from our mistakes but also of looking forward instead of backward. Did this admission hint at a shift in Britain's foreign policy when Mr Brown takes over in ten days' time? To judge by the announcement he made in the next sentence - a restructuring of the British security apparatus to guard against future intelligence failures such as the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction - the answer is "no". Mr Brown's foreign policy will remain as backward-looking and self-deluding as Tony Blair's.
I say this with growing despair, because I too have returned from a fact-finding tour, to America. Viewed from across the Atlantic it is clear that the parochial British obsession with WMD and "sexed-up dossiers" bears no relationship to the catastrophes now unfolding in the Middle East and beyond - not only in Iraq, but also in Gaza, Lebanon and Afghanistan, and soon maybe Syria, Iran and Pakistan. What people are talking about in America is not whether the invasion of Iraq was legally or morally justified but why it went so disastrously wrong and whether the same blundering fanatics will launch another catastrophic military adventure, most likely a bombing campaign against Iran, to distract attention from failure in Iraq. After all, the neoconservative ideologues who still run the Bush Administration have nothing left to lose politically - and in their fevered imaginations they still think they could inflict military defeat on the "Islamofascists" in what they now see as an even greater historical confrontation than the Cold War.
While Mr Brown and the British media are still fretting about who said what to whom about WMD intelligence, the talk in American policy circles is about an article, The Case for Bombing Iran, published two weeks ago in Commentary and The Wall Street Journal and cited approvingly to anyone who cares to listen by officials close to Dick Cheney. Its author, Norman Podhoretz, is an intellectual mentor to the people who took America into Iraq. His self-explanatory message is that Iran today is more dangerous than Hitler's Germany, since it could soon have nuclear weapons - and that Israel's very existence is menaced now as never before.
It is significant that Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, travelled to Washington at about the same time as the article was published to plead with congressmen "not to tie President Bush's hands over Iran". Also that John McCain, the only unequivocally pro-war presidential candidate, endorsed Podhoretz's argument, stating that "the only thing more dangerous than attacking Iran is allowing Iran to get nuclear weapons" - and that Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate, came out with a strikingly undiplomatic public statement, giving warning that "crazies in Washington" now seemed to be planning to repeat the Iraq disaster by attacking Iran.
To their credit, well-informed Americans, some even inside the Bush Administration, are now looking forward instead of backward, debating not what happened five years ago, but how to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible and, even more urgently, how to prevent "the crazies" from starting another war. Instead of obsessively returning to now-irrelevant WMD and intelligence issues, Americans understand that the greatest scandal of the Iraq war was not its alleged justification but its conduct and the lack of preparation for the chaos that the invasion unleashed.
Compare the intelligence failures from which Mr Brown wants to draw his lessons with the facts - confirmed in numerous published memoirs - about this war's irresponsible and incompetent conduct that are now common knowledge in America. For instance, General Anthony Zinni, the chief of US central command, war-gamed Iraq for more than a year before the invasion and every scenario he devised ended in a disaster, requiring many hundreds of thousands of US troops to bring it under control and remain in occupation for many years. Yet none of these scenarios was even considered by President Bush when he made the decision to invade.
Vice-President Cheney viewed the Iraq as a perfect opportunity to prove the "Rumsfeld doctrine" of low-manpower, shock-and-awe aerial warfare, without any need for the US to win allies or for the military to engage in "state-building" tasks.
There is now strong evidence that President Bush didn't even know the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims when he decided to attack Iraq - and that dissenting opinions were simply blocked by Mr Cheney before they could reach the President's desk.
The State Department had prepared to send hundreds of diplomats and private sector construction experts with Arab-language skills and Middle East experience to help to rebuild Iraq. But less than a month before the war started, all these people were "stood down" on orders from Mr Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, as their Middle East experience would bias them towards an "Islamist" and defeatist worldview. The peremptory disbandment of the Iraqi Army and the Baath party, now regarded as the worst mistake of the immediate postwar period, was decided at the "highest level" in Washington and was then imposed against the advice of the US military governor Jay Garner, who quickly understood the anarchy that this would unleash.
The list of misjudgments and mistakes could go on and on, but my point should by now be obvious. The question Mr Brown must now ask himself is whether he can still allow himself to remain publicly allied to a US Administration that is so recklessly belligerent in its diplomatic conduct, so demonstrably incompetent in warfare and so irresponsibly dangerous to the peace of the world.
As the anarchy in Iraq goes from bad to worse and Washington's only answer is to expand the circle of its aggression, clichÃƒ©s about the special relationship are no longer sufficient. Mr Brown must decide whether to remain a silent but active partner in this madness, whether to retreat quietly like the Italians, Poles and Spaniards or to develop a third and genuinely courageous option. This is to positively forestall further disasters by breaking publicly with the Bush Administration and trying to develop a genuine European alternative to the suicidal American-led policies, not only in Iraq, but also in Israel, Palestine and Iran.
© Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd