Almost the last remaining thread keeping me attached to the pro-war camp is what you might call “the Hitchens defence”: that to pull out of Iraq now would leave ordinary Iraqis – particularly women, the anti-Islamist opposition and (as Christopher Hitchens himself never mentions) Christians – at the mercy of terrorists and theocratic fundamentalists, just as not to have gone in would have left them at the mercy of Saddam Hussein in what Hitchens describes as “a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave underneath it”.
Well, Simon Jenkins’ article from Wednesday’s Guardian has gone some way to breaking even that last thread. “To say we must stay in Iraq to save it from chaos is a lie”, writes Jenkins, who argues that “this is a fiasco without parallel in recent British history”:
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.
Politicians on all sides (even those who opposed the war in the first place) are agreed on “this second lie”:
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.
But as Simon Jenkins points out, that little word “until” is precisely the problem:
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 original policy envisaged (and required) “momentum towards local sovereignty and early withdrawal”, but instead we have seen a “civil collapse” in which “we do not even know on which side are the Basra police”. Jenkins continues:
Iraqis of my acquaintance are numb at the violence unleashed by the west’s failure to impose order on their country. … 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.
Jenkins can see little positive being accomplished by the 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.
As for the argument that withdrawing would lead to “revenge attacks, ethnic cleansing and even partition”, Jenkins points out that “these are all happening anyway”. He concludes:
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.
Jenkins opposed the war from the start. So it’s scarcely surprising that he thinks we should cut our losses. However, I think he is certainly spot on with his comments about the “white man’s burden”, and the arrogant western assumption that we are able to make things better by being (and staying) there. It’s one thing to say, “you break it, you fix it”, but you don’t normally entrust crucial repairs to the person whose incompetence or stupidity caused the damage in the first place.
I then turned to Boris Johnson’s column in yesterday’s Telegraph. Johnson originally supported the war, but he recanted some time ago, and now writes:
What a shambles. What chaos. And how quickly it all seems to be getting worse.
Johnson describes how the two “undercover soldiers” sprung from a Baghdad prison by the British army earlier this week had refused to produce their documents at a checkpoint, “because they knew that the Iraqi police force in Basra is now completely riddled with extremist Shia elements”, and continues:
Consider the symbolic importance of that. We have spent 30 months working with the local Iraqi police in Basra. Hundreds of millions of British taxpayers’ money have gone on the rebuilding of the institutions of civic society, of which the police are the key component. We have coached them, drilled them, exhorted them and recruited them. Swarms of MPs and journalists have been flown out to admire the change we are wreaking.
And what is the net result? It is not that the Basra police suffer from the odd bad apple; no, it’s like the denouement of a nightmare Hollywood cop movie, in which you discover that virtually the entire force has been corrupted.
As Johnson concludes:
Whatever we achieve in Iraq, we will not have made our own world safer, or made the risk of terrorism less likely: quite the reverse.
Perhaps it is just my paranoia, but there was something too neat about the way the British authorities released the new pictures of the four suicide bombers this week, not just to take the heat out of the Basra story, but also subliminally to remind the public of the claim with which Blair invaded Iraq – that it was part of the “war on terror”.
That claim was a lie, and whatever good may come out of the Iraq war, we should never forget that it was based on that lie.
Finally, the Blood and Treasure blog points to apparent links between the “arrest” of the two British soldiers earlier this week and recent bombing attacks on British servicemen:
Assuming that this is correct, it follows that these attacks were undertaken with at least the tacit support of the Basra government, itself elected under the supervision of British occupation forces. In short, the government we installed is telling us that it’s time to leave.
All this calls to mind the suggestion made by someone during the Vietnam War, that the US should “say we won and go home”. I suspect we’ve reached the stage where that is the best we can hope to achieve in Iraq. And, to adopt a phrase from Michael Ledeen that Mark Steyn is fond of quoting (though for the opposite purpose): “Faster, please”.
Update: Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell depicted the “say we won and go home” approach well over a year ago. Don’t think he thought too much of it, though…