Only the most implacable critics of the government could fail to appreciate the shift in foreign policy since Tony Blair left office three weeks ago. This was always going to be a difficult and controversial process. Downing Street has already been forced to refute false suggestions of anti-Americanism made against Douglas Alexander, the development secretary, and Mark Malloch Brown, the new Foreign Office minister, last week. That is understandable. No British government is going to abandon a close alliance with the US as a central plank of its diplomacy, as David Miliband made clear again yesterday. The question is how restrictively ministers interpret its terms.
The Bush administration expects unconditional obedience from its allies, so it is refreshing to hear British ministers set out views that challenge neoconservative orthodoxy across such a broad front. According to Alexander, successful western strategy cannot be built on unilateralism, over-reliance on military power, the rejection of international institutions and indifference to global poverty and climate change. Malloch Brown argues that Britain and the US should be close, but not "joined at the hip".
The message seems to be that, in the future, the US should be prepared to give as well as take. There is absolutely nothing anti-American about that. It is what we should expect of any genuine friend. It is therefore vitally important that ministers avoid being panicked by dramatic headlines or complaints from Washington into accepting that there is something shameful about demanding reciprocity in transatlantic relations. Our interests are close, but they are not identical. Gordon Brown needs to show that he can be as firm in standing up for Britain in Washington as he prides himself on being in Brussels.
Of course, changing the tone was always going to be the easy bit. The true test will come when differences of principle collide in the real world of hard policy choice. Will the Brown government make it clear that the US unwillingness to put serious pressure on Israel is the main obstacle to a two-state solution? Will it depart from the White House script if war erupts again in Lebanon? We cannot achieve a more balanced Atlantic alliance without being prepared to say no when it counts. An ally that always says yes is one that is asking to be taken for granted.
These dilemmas are coming to a head over the question of how to extricate ourselves from the failed US-British intervention in Iraq. Official statements so far have been guarded, emphasising that Britain has obligations and suggesting that a precipitate withdrawal is off the agenda. That has to be right. Disengagement must be a process in which the different communities are prepared for life after occupation and the basis for government by consensus and compromise is created. A sudden, unplanned withdrawal, or even the hint of one, would further destabilise the situation and inflict even more misery on a long-suffering people.
Yet the government has to recognise that its current open-ended commitment is equally dangerous. The idea that American and British troops hold any of the answers to Iraq's security problems is collapsing in the face of evidence that Bush's "surge" strategy is failing to achieve most of its stated aims. Extending deadlines and increasing force levels will not fix this: the occupation itself is one of the main reasons for Iraq's continued dysfunctionality and the violence it breeds.
The only way for Iraq to emerge from its present crisis is with the agreement of its three main communities. But as long as our troops remain on Iraqi soil there will be no incentive for them to come to the table and work out a way of living together in peace. Sunnis will refuse to play their full part in making the governance of Iraq work because they believe it will legitimise an occupation they despise. The main Shia parties will not make the compromises needed to win the participation of Iraq's Sunnis because they assume that American military power will bail them out.
It is telling that several of the missed benchmarks detailed in last week's downbeat White House assessment of its Iraq policy relate to the failure of the authorities in Baghdad to share wealth and power with the Sunni minority. As a result, many Sunnis regard the Shia-dominated government as an illegitimate sectarian project and will continue to do so as long as its writ is imposed at the point of an American gun. Only the prospect of withdrawal can break this psychological logjam and create the conditions for a lasting settlement.
The objective of British policy must be to secure American acceptance of the need for a medium-term deadline for withdrawal. Once a timetable is set, it will be possible to focus the minds of Iraqis on the need to work with each other and to draw in regional powers such as Jordan, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia as part of a UN-sponsored initiative to underwrite Iraq's stability and progress. The alternative is to stumble on hopelessly while more Iraqis and British and American troops die.
Faced with the dramatic erosion of domestic American support for Bush's Iraq strategy, the obvious temptation might be to sit back and let war weariness push the US towards the inevitable. That would be a failure of leadership. We should not limp out of Iraq as we arrived, clinging on to the US's coat tails. Instead, our elected leaders ought to be driving the debate about an exit strategy. The seriousness of the situation, especially the toll on ordinary Iraqis and our service personnel, demands no less.
Some parts of Whitehall worry about the implications of taking this approach for relations with Washington. That is certainly a consideration. Even those Americans impatient with Bush's mistakes could be expected to react badly if Britain walked away without warning. But with more than 70% of Americans now in favour of getting out, there is space for Britain to play a more active role. General Petraeus talks about a "draw down" of troops beginning next April. The government should make it clear - privately at first, and then publicly - that it expects the withdrawal of any remaining British forces to be part of that first phase. Given the precariousness of Bush's position, that could just be enough to force the policy rethink the US, Britain, and above all Iraq, urgently need.
David Clark is a former Labour government adviser Dkclark@aol.com
© 2007 The Guardian