Saturday, October 28, 2006

The point of departure

Saturday October 28, 2006
The Guardian

"Close to its end, just as at its beginning and all through its execution, the occupation of Iraq has been shaped by miscalculation, haste and deceit. An ill-judged invasion fought on a misleading premise gave way to a chaotic aftermath that placed theory ahead of reality, with consequences that the world will have to endure for decades. For a time, however, even for those who opposed the war, including this paper, real hope lay in the promise of recovery, a slow imposition of order underpinned by a form of democracy that could have allowed western forces to leave Iraq gradually, and without disgrace. The case for running away was never strong while that hope remained.

Now, although they dare not say it, even the war's architects in Washington and London know that there will be no honourable departure. They are preparing to scuttle. Military reality and political expediency are blowing away all talk of patience, reconstruction, "staying the course" and "getting the job done" - the desperate expectation that somehow, despite all the violence and disorder, a better destination would be found for Iraq. The language is still heard, more now from Tony Blair than President Bush. But it has become nothing more than passing cover for a retreat from western engagement that is already under way, a thin disguise draped over defeat.

The years ahead will provide many chances to rake over what went wrong and to challenge those responsible. This has already begun in the US, where the midterm elections are forcing the pace. But the need is not for retribution at home, but a truthful account of how things stand and an assessment of how best the country can be pulled up from the black depths into which it is plunging. There is no cure for wounds that will bleed for many years. What can be hoped for is a salvage operation.

Yet it is happening already - and since withdrawal is inevitable, the question is how best chaos can be restricted when it is completed. Total collapse of the elected government can only be averted if order is brought to Baghdad, something the US has failed to achieve. It will require less contentious outside forces to achieve that. Money now spent on the war - the economist Joseph Stiglitz, estimates that staying on another four years would take the total cost to the US of the war to $1trillion - should pay for an international force, of limited duration, made up of troops from largely Muslim states such as Indonesia. American and British money and material must also be used to sustain Iraqi forces during the transition. But western disengagement must not be followed by an expansion of the 25,000 mercenary force.

That may not work, just as other well-meaning ideas for reconstruction funds and the restoration of heritage sites may be nothing more than sedatives to calm British and American consciences over the demon that has been created. Whatever happens now, there will be continuing violence, widespread human rights abuses, and an Iraqi government that will be focused primarily on survival. The country is in ruins, its economy shattered and its population terrified and fleeing. But Britain staying on much longer is not going to stop that."

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