Shame The Doubters Were So Quiet When We Went To War

The British withdrawal from Basra Palace might not have been defeat as such - there was no panic, no Saigon-style helicopters, and no triumphal enemy firing that we know of - but it was hardly victory, was it? The barest handover formalities were observed, and only after the troops had arrived in the relative safety of their airport base.

Anyone under the illusion that we can still salvage some honour from Iraq, however, should attend to the noises off, specifically those issuing recently from Washington and London. First, the US General John Keane questioned the British contribution; then General Sir Mike Jackson described US policy as "intellectually bankrupt". Finally, Maj-Gen Tim Cross chimed in - in a Sunday newspaper interview - to condemn the US approach as "fatally flawed".

With US and British troops still in the field, the blame game - transatlantic or domestic - is as yet something the top brass can play only by proxy, through their allies in retirement. But there can be no doubt that it is being played - and played by individuals of very great seniority and influence.

General Keane has served since his retirement as the eyes and ears of the US political establishment in Iraq. General Jackson became Britain's chief of general staff on the eve of the Iraq war, and has been increasingly open about his misgivings in retirement. Maj-Gen Cross was in charge of post-invasion planning on the British side.

Frank though these recriminations might seem, however, they still skirt the central issue of blame. The US Defence Secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, is a favourite target of British critics, for ignoring or dismissing their warnings. But Mr Rumsfeld is too easy a fall-guy. Since his sacking after the Republicans' humiliation in last year's elections, he has become the scapegoat for everyone's sins.

And why all this talk of "post-war planning"? Do those who led us into this war still cling to the notion that the war was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed - until Mr Rumsfeld and his inept planners mangled the follow-up? Or are they just saving their skins?

The truth, though, comes ever closer. Listen to Maj-Gen Cross. "Right from the beginning," he says, "we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the post-war plan."

I am sure they were. The many leaks to journalists from unhappy members of the defence and diplomatic establishment over those months testify eloquently to these worries. But if there was so much concern at the time - from the British head of military planning, from Britain's newly appointed chief of the general staff, among others - why in heaven's name were they not more open about it? Why did not any which one of them - dare one mention the word - resign?

It is unfair to restrict ourselves to the top brass. A few more names could be added. The Prime Minister's chief foreign policy adviser at the time, Sir Stephen Wall, said 18 months after the invasion - after he had left for a secure berth in the private sector - that in the run-up to the war "we" - note the plural - had allowed "our" judgement of the "dire consequences of inaction" to override our judgement about the legality of the war.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, parachuted from being "our man" at the UN to the less enviable job of "our man" in Baghdad, repeatedly alluded to problems with the "day after scenario" (as post-war planning was known), but always expressed his misgivings in euphemisms on and off the record. Now retired and comfortably ensconced as director of an academic foundation, Sir Jeremy recently voiced some criticisms for a BBC documentary, but confined his remarks - of course - to the deficiencies of US post-war planning.

Here we had some of the most senior officials in and around the Blair government, and now they "all" want us to know that they harboured enormous misgivings, but only about "post-war planning". So why, individually and collectively, were they so reticent when it mattered?

The arguments against resignation are well rehearsed. The non-resigner argues that his representations will be more effective if kept within the organisation. He speaks of a duty of loyalty or confidentiality. He insists that war is no time for resignations that could depress morale and so jeopardise the mission. He argues that the departure of someone so senior would not halt the doomed enterprise and could make matters worse by removing key expertise. Some admit that they just hoped Blair was right and they were wrong.

Just imagine, though, if the chief of general staff, chief of military operations planning, chief Downing Street foreign policy adviser and Britain's chief representative in Baghdad had relinquished their posts, citing their personal and professional "concerns"? Would British forces, I wonder, have had to steal away from Basra Palace in the small hours of the morning four years on?


(c) 2007 The Independent

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