We have no choice but to live with the Iraq hangover



19 September 2004

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, asked: "What will this action achieve?" A year before the invasion of Iraq he commented: "There seems to be a larger hole in this than anything." Yet into that hole George Bush and Tony Blair fell, and the Iraqi people are paying the highest price for that mistake.

The leak of secret memos to the Prime Minister warning him of the dangers of invading Iraq may not add greatly to the sum of human knowledge. It comes as no surprise, although it is important to have it confirmed, that Mr Blair was "unbudgeable" in his private support for regime change, despite publicly insisting that Saddam Hussein could avoid military action if he complied with UN resolutions.

It was well known and endlessly debated in public that an invasion to replace Saddam would require many years of military presence and nation-building. It was widely suspected that the US had not planned sufficiently for "What happens on the morning after", in the words of Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning.

Yet now, a year and a half after the invasion, the situation in Iraq is worse than the pessimists in the Foreign Office could have imagined, and getting worse rather than better. The bland optimism of Mr Blair is beginning to take on a quality of unreality. "The idea that we did not have a plan for afterwards is simply not correct," he said yesterday. "We did and we have unfolded that plan, but there are people in Iraq who are determined to stop us." The idea that Iraq is proceeding along a pre-set timetable towards democracy is a fantasy story suitable for 30-second commercials in the US election campaign. It bears little relation to the daily news of kidnappings, shootings, suicide bombs and armed gangsterism. Not to mention the resumed narrative of "pinpoint" air strikes by US forces that seem to produce women and children casualties in Iraqi hospitals.

There is no point in opponents of the war saying that we told them so. Nor would it be right to call for British and American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. It may appear that the presence of Western forces there is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But to pull out now would ensure that the country was taken over by a dictator or several dictators, probably after an even more bloody phase than the present one.

Equally, however, Mr Blair and Mr Bush will convince few people if they continue to pretend - as Downing Street did yesterday - that the outlook for Iraq is anything other than grim. If Mr Blair wants to move the argument on to a serious debate about how best to help stabilise Iraq, it would help if he acknowledges the depth of the crisis.

Having started on this disastrous course, the US and Britain have no choice but to see it through. That means, as a Cabinet Office paper warned two-and-a-half years ago, that "substantial" numbers of troops will have to stay in Iraq for many years yet.