Quentin Peel: Iraq is facing an impossible dilemma

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: September 23 2004

The president of the US is in denial. So is the British prime minister. That is the only conclusion one can draw from the way they see the chaos and ever-worsening security in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

When President George W. Bush addressed the United Nations general assembly this week, he completely misread the sombre mood of the meeting. We gather at a time of tremendous opportunity for the UN and for all peaceful nations, he said. Today, the Iraqi and Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom . . . These two nations will be a model for the broader Middle East.

He admitted that there were difficult conditions in both countries and terrorist attacks might well escalate as both approach their respective elections. But he repeated his conviction that freedom would triumph, and called on the rest of the UN member states to give them more help in the process. The US had done the heavy lifting, he implied, and now it was time for the rest of the world to help tidy up a bit of broken china.

It was vintage Bush, with no hint of recognition that the security situation in both countries is steadily deteriorating, above all for the civilian population. In Iraq a vicious dictator has been overthrown, only for the country to descend into chaos and face the looming prospect of civil war. For many people, life has got worse, not better.

There was certainly not the slightest sign of the president admitting that a large part of the problem stems from a series of catastrophic miscalculations and policy failures on the part of his administration, both in the way it went to war and the way it has sought to make the peace.

Of course it is too much to expect that, just six weeks from the US presidential election, Mr Bush would own up to any such thing. It would undermine his image as the successful commander-in-chief, holding back the forces of global terrorism. But just a hint of humility would have been helpful.

Tony Blair was rather less sanguine, but equally unrepentant, when he met Iyad Allawi, his Iraqi counterpart, in London on Sunday.

It was time to put aside arguments about the rights and wrongs of military intervention in Iraq, he said. There might have been perfectly legitimate disagreements, but that was history. For Iraq had become the crucible in which the future of global terrorism will be determined. There was now a new Iraqi conflict, and there is only one side for sensible and decent people to be on, he said.

Mr Blair is right that the appalling atrocities being perpetrated against Iraqi civilians by suicide bombers and the barbarous murder of innocent kidnap victims by cells of Islamist fanatics must be utterly condemned by all decent people. The extremists want Mr Bush's war on terror, and they are doing everything in their power to stir it up. But they would never have been given such a good opportunity if we had not blundered into this Iraqi war in the first place. All warnings of the chaos that would ensue were blithely ignored, especially in Washington.

Afghanistan and Iraq are two different stories, even though Mr Bush and Mr Blair would like to present them as part of the same narrative today. The invasion of Afghanistan was always justified, because of the support given by the Taliban regime to Osama bin Laden and his jihadists. But it was also a huge challenge to hope to pacify a country with a centuries-old tradition of resisting all invaders. It never received the attention it deserved because of the instant switch in focus to invading Iraq.

There the situation is even more complex, because the US-led coalition forces are so widely perceived as occupiers, not liberators. The collapse of law and order and the soaring numbers of civilian casualties have reinforced that suspicion. The lack of a clear UN mandate, failure to find any weapons of mass destruction and the ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners have played into the hands of anti-American forces, of whom most are Iraqi, not international terrorists.

Today, the majority of US troops in Iraq are virtually confined to their fortified bases, making only token patrols to mark their presence and leaving the fighting to helicopters and aerial bombardment. It is only making matters worse. Much of the country has become a no-go area for civilian contractors and aid agencies seeking to help in the reconstruction effort.

Even if Mr Bush and Mr Blair were to admit their mistakes, there would be no easy way out. The coalition forces have become part of the problem, not the solution. The sooner they go, the better - except for the fact that there is no viable alternative.

That is the dilemma, too, for John Kerry, if he were to defeat Mr Bush on November 2 - and for all the critics of the war in Europe and the UN. If the Americans go home, is there anyone else to take their place?

Mr Kerry might well turn to France and Germany for help, but there is little political will in those countries to get involved, even without Mr Bush. Sending in Nato forces would simply look like US troops in disguise.

In the end, only the Iraqis themselves can provide their own peace and security. Massive military intervention was never the right solution. But Mr Bush is right about one thing. Now it has happened, the rest of the international community will have to pick up the pieces.