Let's Start By Admitting We Were Wrong In Iraq

New New Labour hasn't changed its spots in one way. It still loves the overarching concept dressed up in marketing-speak. But even by old Blairite standards the new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, hit rock-bottom in Bournemouth with the theme of "foreign policy - the second wave".

We all know what he means. Iraq is the shame that dare not speak its name. Gordon Brown and almost every member of his Cabinet (John Denham is the single and honourable exception) voted for war. None of them can bring themselves to admit they were wrong. So the poor public has to be treated with great washes of specious nonsense to try and allow the Government to put the Iraq disaster behind them. "Whatever the rights and wrongs, and there have been both," as David Miliband put it, "we've got to focus on the future."

But that's just trying to have it both ways. The trouble with foreign policy, and particularly Iraq, is that you can't move forward unless you've understood the past. Iraq remains the biggest single blot on the Labour record. And we still can't escape the consequences of that fateful decision.

Much has been made, and rightly, of how well Gordon Brown has managed his first months in office. That is true, with the exception of his visit to Washington at the end of July. It wasn't planned. It wasn't right. But the Prime Minister was dragooned into it by a series of sanctioned statements by his ministers suggesting that a new occupant in Downing Street was going to distance himself from the old occupant of the White House.

Perhaps he should have. The effect of the first comments, however, was to bring forward what was intended to be a carefully orchestrated distancing meeting in Autumn to a rushed summit in summer. Instead of being able to draw new distinctions in the "special relationship", and to pursue Britain's rapid exit from Iraq, the new Prime Minister was forced to swear allegiance to the old relationship and to play down the exit strategy. It would have been very different if Brown had only gone after General Petraeus' report to Congress this month not before it.

And so it continues today. We still have a sizeable body of troops in the country. We still - or, at least if we do the public has not been informed of it - have no clear exit strategy from Iraq. And as long as that is so, then we have to live with an overstretched Army in Afghanistan, a loss of prestige through most of the Third World, a target for terrorists and a reputation as a poodle of the Americans.

We can try and retake the moral high ground by blowing hot - as the Prime Minister does - on humanitarian disasters that are Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur. But it's not clear that all our high rhetoric does much, certainly not for the victims of these atrocities. All our protestations of an ethical foreign policy have been ground into the dust of Iraq. For most of the world we are neither an independent body nor an ethical one. We are seen - as in a sense we are - as just a last and irrelevant shout of western imperialism from the past.

There is an alternative policy. Not a "second wave" but a new start which commits the country to multi-lateralism, reconsiders the whole Nato venture in Afghanistan, steps back from confrontation with Iran, is genuinely even-handed in the Middle East and abandons a sullied chapter of so-called "humanitarian intervention". But it can't be done so long as President Bush is in power and we continue to acclaim our special relationship. Above all, it can't be done so long as we refuse to admit that we were wrong in Iraq.

It is not a question of self-flagellation but honesty. Think what the effect would be if Brown flew to Baghdad and said simply that he supported the war with all the best intentions but now realises he and his country had been wrong, that it shouldn't have gone in without a UN mandate, and that we would retire as soon as possible commensurate with the Iraqi's wish to keep us. It wouldn't make us popular in Washington, but then many Americans would welcome our admission. Our standing elsewhere in the world would soar. Here at last was a Western leader that could accept mistakes.

Instead, in Bournemouth this week we had a Prime Minister who said next to nothing of Iraq other than reiterating Britain's relationship with America and a Foreign Secretary who could argue that we sent our "young men and women to fight for our values". The hell we did. We may have invaded Iraq to keep in with the Americans, in a mad dream to reshape the Middle East, to ensure future oil supplies for the West and to further Tony Blair's vision of himself as the new world crusader. But the one thing we did not fight for was our values. Those we left behind when first we decided to invade.

a.hamilton@ independent.co.uk

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