Thursday, February 16, 2006

It's Worse Than Vietnam

Sir Malcolm Rifkind may not have a cat in hell's chance of becoming Tory leader, but he is a hell of a sharp politician. The former Foreign Secretary's claim last week that Iraq was worse than Suez, worse than Vietnam and that Tony Blair should have resigned long ago, was well timed and well informed. It's just the kind of thing Tony Blair might himself would have said at this stage of the Iraq disaster had he been leader of the opposition.
It might seem over the top to say that Iraq is worse than the Vietnam war in the 1960s - until you think about it. At least in Vietnam America knew who the enemy was and had been invited in by a nominally democratic government in Saigon. In Iraq, they - we - blundered in uninvited and found ourselves facing an amorphous and probably unbeatable foe which doesn't stand and fight, like the Vietcong.
Things are so bad in Basra, where the British army trashed a prison complex last week to release two SAS soldiers, that even the Iraqi police force can no longer be trusted. Britain and America face a very similar dilemma to that faced by President Johnson in Vietnam in 1965/66. Do they escalate or come home? The British cannot hope to pacify an area half the size of France with only 8,500 men. But to send more troops would be even greater folly.
Rifkind was absolutely spot on too in expressing astonishment that Tony Blair remains in office. In the Suez crisis in 1956, Britain's last imperial adventure, no British soldiers were killed - though a lot of Egyptians died. Yet Anthony Eden, the Tory Prime Minister, did the decent thing and resigned. In those days, it's what leaders did.
There was no really debate about it, no attempting to shift blame to the BBC or spin out of the crisis. Britain had suffered a massive humiliation, people had died, and Number Ten simply had to take responsibility. If nothing else, it meant that a new regime could come in and pick up the pieces with a new policy. Resignation isn't just some quaint old toff tradition like fair play and cricket. It performs a vitally important political function. No government, no business, no teenage fan club for that matter can continue to function with a leader who has made a complete mess of things. It is essential to bring in a new team to make a fresh start. Otherwise we continue to repeat the mistakes of the past because the author of them remains in denial.
In Britain we are stuck with a busted Prime Minister, who took us into an illegal war, on the basis of distorted intelligence, without the promised UN resolution, after two of the biggest parliamentary rebellions in a hundred years and in the face of widespread opposition in the country. This was the cock up of all cock ups; the mother of all mishaps. Yet he's still there.
We were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which could attack British interests within 45 minutes. This was complete nonsense, as was everything else we were told about Saddam's WMD. Blair should have gone the mnoment it became clear that the war had been based on a false prospectus. But he didn't.
Instead, the war aims were subtly altered to 'defeating terrorism' and 'bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East'. Well, it rapidly became clear that terrorism had been made immeasurably worse by the invasion. Iraq's democracy seems tenuous at best, in a country plunging into anarchy.
As soon as the insurgency began to inflict serious casualties on the British army, Blair should have resigned. It is simply unacceptable for ninety five servicemens' lives to be lost in error.
The government defused the David Kelly affair by a launching disgraceful assault on the integrity of the BBC. Andrew Gilligan's "Today" report about the WMD intelligence being "sexed up" was correct in all essentials. Senior intelligence figures did clearly feel that the intelligence had been massaged by Number Ten, as the subsequent Butler report confirmed. It should have been Tony Blair who resigned to atone for Dr Kelly's death, not the Director General of the BBC.
The next opportunity for dignified exit was when the infamous Downing St memo of December 2002 emerged earlier this year, confirming that the Prime Minister had resolved to go to war fully a year before it was put to parliament. Parliament was deceived.
The final occasion was the London bombings in July. That should have been the moment when any self-respecting leader realised he couldn't go on. Not only was Iraq now in ruins, its terrorism had, like a contagion, been imported to Britain. The people who died in the London Underground were victims of Islamic extremism, but also of British foreign policy.
Blair's blunder in Iraq has put Britain in the front line. If the cause had been just, the war legitimate, the intelligence accurate and the democratic promises sincere, then bringing terror home might have been a price worth paying. But for people to die as a consequence of a monumental governmental cock up is simply unnacceptable. Someone has to take responsibility.
Rifkind is right. Blair should have gone long since. The longer he clings to power, the more misery will be brought to Iraq, the more British soldiers will die, the more terrorism will spread. There be a more serious bomb in London or another provincial city. As Iraq spirals into civil war, more British soldiers will be leaping in flames from their armoured vehicles. The Middle East will descend into communal violence and religious fanaticism.
The Islamic Shia reactionaries who have taken charge in southern Iraq are forging links with the Ayatollahs in neighbouring Shia Iran - a power with nuclear ambitions. The disintegration of Iraq will destabilise the entire Middle East - just as critics forecast.
We need a new direction in Iraq, not a continuation of failed policies.It is simply impossible to devise a new approach under this discredited and dangerous Prime Minister. We need a leader who can see the Iraq imbroglio for what it is, rather than through the prism of his own narcissistic fantasy. Yet, Tony Blair shows no signs of going, and the Labour cabinet - as supine as ever - shows no sign of standing up to him.
This week, the emasculated Labour Party in Brighton will cheer and support this deluded and autocratic leader. Cabinet ministers will line up to praise him, like North Korean apparatchiks. The Sun will commend him for backing Our Boys. Conference, like parliament, has lost any will to hold this leader to account.
We are left with an immoveable Prime Minister, exercising the residual powers of an absolutist Monarch, who is planning to introduce a raft of illiberal anti-terror laws which will erode civil liberties and free speech. This is no longer a party political matter, but a constitutional one. We need a civic response, a broadly-based campaign to challenge elective dictatorship.
This should, first of all, include the leaders of the opposition parties - Salmond, Kennedy, Clarke (if he wins the Tory leadership). Thereafter, it needs prominent figures from civil society, church leaders, academics, writers and former statesmen like Christ Patten and Roy Hattersley.
This campaing might look something like the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1988. That body successfully mobilised Scottish civil society against autocratic rule from the Thatcher government. From small beginnings, it brought about the greatest constitutional revolution in these islands in 80 years. We need something similar again.
It just needs a leader. How tragic that the politician best suited to this role, Robin Cook, died just when we needed him most.

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