Friday, February 10, 2006

Iraq and the real choices 

Iraq ‘withdrawal’ came up as a dividing theme in ‘Question Time’ and no doubt will pay out again in other Hustings. When candidates are so close on so many key issues the points of difference are in danger of getting inflated. I would like to suggest some careful thought before we hobble ourselves with unnecessary differences..

From the British perspective there is little difference between the ‘set a withdrawal date’ stance suggested by Chris and Simon and the ‘process to disengagement and withdrawal’ stance taken by Ming. We all know that we want UK troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Each variation is risky, each subject to sabotage and overturning by unfriendly actions.

As the Oxford Research Group Report I highlighted earlier says:

The debate on Iraq must not be confined to “stay the course” or “cut and run”.
Both paths are perilous. If the Coalition remains for years, we risk strengthening the most radical elements of the insurgency and helping them reshape the region in their own interest. Yet withdrawal, if precipitate rather than carefully planned, could risk chaos or civil war.

The crucial point is perceptions and commitments by others, those who are fighting Britain and the other ‘Coalition Forces’. It must be made very clear that Britain in fact does want and intends to withdraw – that any work of ‘establishing conditions for a draw-down of forces’ is not a cover for permanent occupation.

The Insurgencies very definitely play up to the idea that we and the USA are trying for long-term occupation and subsequent control of a client state; that talks of withdrawal are a sham. We are, as Chris Huhne said on Question time, seen as part of the problem not part of the solution. The UK need to break that perception. We need to change the storyline from ‘occupation’ to ‘Iraqi Liberation’ and changing that story needs unremitting honesty from the UK government, an admission of past errors, and a clear commitment to total withdrawal.

See the ORG report for a discussion of the many things that need to be done as part of a withdrawal strategy. Setting target dates is not a stretegy for just walking out regardless.

I am disappointed that Ming is playing this debate as if his leadership opponents are advocating cut-and-run. This is not a helpful stance either from the party or the national perspective. If we absorb the important perspectives offered by the ORG report we will find ourselves very much more in agreement on how to proceed.

Part of that honesty from the UK should include a greater awareness of the history of Iraq. The great siege of Fallujah in the 1920’s is a vital threads in Iraqi historic memory, the Dunkirk Moment where a shattering defeat defines national solidarity and determination, and it was against the colonial power of Britain that Iraqis of all faith and national communities united in those events in Fallujah. There is no way Britain can be seen as being the bearer of disinterested good offices in Iraq.

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