Clearly John Howard, like his friend George W. Bush, remains in denial over the shambles that is Iraq.
Having invaded that country on pretexts now proven utterly false, the so-called “coalition of the willing” achieved a swift victory over the under-equipped and severely damaged Iraqi military. Winning the conventional war against Saddam’s forces proved easy; winning the peace - pardon the word, which isn’t really apposite - has proven impossible.
Recently declassified documents show that the Americans expected that post-conquest “stabilisation” of the country would take two to three months, “recovery” a further 18-24 months and “transition of civil-military activities” to international organisations, NGOs and the US-supported Iraqi Government another 12-18 months. By the end of 2006 the US expected to have just 5,000 troops left in Iraq! Just how they believed these expectations could be realised, is a question best addressed to Mr Bush.
But notwithstanding the disastrous real-world outcomes, Bush and Howard continue to argue that “victory” in Iraq is achievable via the “new strategy” recently announced. This strategy, one of escalation, amounts to the deployment of about 21,000 more US troops to Iraq, primarily to secure Baghdad, and pressurising the Iraq Government (such as it is) to commit more of its forces (such as they are) to the same goal.
The prospects of this approach were recently analysed in an incisive interview given to ABC-TV by Australian-born Martin Indyk (long since a US citizen and the Clinton Administration’s Ambassador to Israel - a most sensitive and responsible post). Indyk, at least, realises the bitter truth: the US and its allies are “going down to defeat” in Iraq.
The seeds of this defeat were sown not only in foolish expectations but in immediate post-conquest US behaviour.
Watching the final collapse of Saddam’s noxious regime on CNN, I was dismayed to see that the new overlords of Iraq had clearly made no plans for a proper and efficient occupation of Baghdad. The images of total disorder and systematic looting - even of the priceless treasures of the city museum, which contained some of the earliest relics of civilised humanity from the Sumerian era - spoke volumes about the conquerors’ attitude.
They went in to destroy the Saddam regime: when that was done, everything subsequent was of low priority, based on ludicrous assumptions about future developments and a shortsighted desire to keep dollar costs down.
As Indyk argues, all that is left now is damage-limitation. In his words:
We [the US] have to shift now from a policy of trying to intervene in the civil war to a policy of trying to contain this implosion in Iraq from exploding and affecting American interests in the wider region … what we need is a phased redeployment, essentially to the borders of Iraq, whereby we can deter neighbouring countries, like Iran or Turkey, from intervening and provide safe havens and humanitarian relief for the Iraqis who will be fleeing what increasingly will become a process of ethnic cleansing, and that is the best way, I think, that we can prevent defeat in Iraq from becoming a complete disaster for American interests in the broader region.
This unpalatable scenario is the Bush-Howard-Blair legacy. The Iraq war is a failure, and all that remains is to cut losses - human, military, diplomatic and political - as best as can be.
Whether Indyk’s suggested damage-limitation strategy, which involves an ongoing American presence in Iraq, but not continued engagement in the civil war, would work is another matter. In particular, it appears dangerously open-ended. But it certainly represents a better option than the escalation now being attempted.
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