The prime minister set the cat amongst the pigeons last week in a moment of inattention during a session with veteran interviewer, David Frost, for the new al-Jazeera English language television channel. Sir David’s suggestion that the ill-fated Iraq adventure had “so far been pretty much of a disaster” was acknowledged by Tony Blair’s apparent agreement in his reply: “It has, [but] you see what I say to people is why is it difficult in Iraq'” He went on to say, “It’s not difficult because of some accident in planning…It’s difficult because there’s a deliberate strategy — al Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other — to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war.”
Political opponents have naturally leapt on Blair’s “It has.…” In fact, it is perfectly true, as Downing Street spokespersons have pointed out, that the prime minister has a habit of appearing to acquiesce with a questioner when he is only acknowledging the question before building an alternative argument. Probably the cry of misrepresentation was reasonable although BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, takes the view that Blair has decided there is no longer any point arguing with interviewers over his original entry into the Iraq war. Rather, his changed focus is on apportioning the blame to the insurgents for the current grim situation there, at the same time continuing to commit British troops to staying “until the job is done”.
The ‘job’ is “the establishment of a stable, secure Iraq based on representative institutions”. The strategies to achieve it are being diverted by reactive activities to shore up an increasingly unstable society and a besieged and ineffectual government, while the body count of Iraqi civilians and foreign troops rises daily. When the chief of the general staff, Richard Dannatt, gave an overtly political interview to the Daily Mail in October, he may have meant, as he suggested later, only to express concern for the future effectiveness of the British army, given the rate of attrition of men and materials in Iraq. Whatever his intent, his interview was underscored by postings on websites for serving soldiers and their families, detailing their confusion over the initial and present purpose of their service in Iraq and their low expectations for the achievability of vague goals. The general undoubtedly took himself far beyond the previously accepted role of CGS. In theory, his interview may have changed the relationship between the government and the armed forces, giving the army so prominent a political profile that it must produce its own voice in the future rather than retaining its secure position as the tool of the people through democratically elected government.
General Charles Vyvyan, the former defence attaché in Washington who also spent a year at the National Defence College in Pakistan, is a distinctly cerebral former soldier with a Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford educational background. Travelling regularly between the United States of America and London, he is in touch with the serving army officers and independent strategic experts in both countries. He believes that given that a presidential election looms in 2008, the decision to pull out of Iraq may already have been taken. This he considers an immoral position to adopt since the Bush/Blair coalition can be held responsible for creating the present situation. At the same time, he believes that it may be practical in terms of a traditional society being pushed into sorting out its problems through force, and thereby achieving closure. I suppose, the best we can look forward to in terms of this country’s sickening role in the whole debacle is the excoriation of Blair by historians. One does sometimes have a desire for the reality of a good old-fashioned Boschian hell, largely populated by those whose self-righteous convictions of their own goodness led them to do appalling damage to others under the cloak of good intentions.
General Vyvyan has a clear view of the whole Middle Eastern jigsaw that our politicians seem to have lost as they focus only on one small piece at a time of that perennially nervous part of the world. In an address to the Bank of America annual conference in September, he pointed out that “all the wide variety of issues in the region can only be effectively addressed within a comprehensive and integrated context”. We suffer today from a dearth of the wise Arabist politicians who, in the recent past, provided an informed context in which to build our foreign policies in the Middle East. As it is now, Vyvyan sees Iran as the sly beneficiary of the regional chaos, exacerbated by the West’s global war on terrorism and the reduction in Israel’s regional dominance as the ‘myth’ of the deterrent capability of its military has been eroded with its ‘significant strategic failure’ in Lebanon. As readers of this column may know, I am far from being a fan of Israel, but there is an obvious concern that reduction of Israeli and related US power should lead, not to an improved balance in the region, but rather to a new and less understood hegemony.
Iran has seen two rival regional regimes eliminated and has filled the regional void with ease. Every country in the region, even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has to consider the Iranian dimension in any strategic action. Vyvyan blames the unintended and potentially far more dangerous consequences of the global war on terror on the lack of a clearly identified ‘end state’ strategy for the use of force, on thoughtless military reaction without an ‘associated and larger political aim’. He wonders whether the determination to remove the Iraqi dictatorship through inevitably military means ever included any thought as to whether force was the right vehicle for reconstruction of the country. It seems probable that the political aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom was incorrectly identified in the US national security council as “the removal of Saddam and the overthrow of his Ba’ath government”. The correct aim should probably have been “the creation of a secure and stable Iraq with representative institutions”, which would, the general points out, have had, in army-speak, an ‘implied task’ — the removal of Saddam. Unfortunately, the British government also failed to look much beyond the triumphant overthrow of the bogeyman.
Vyvyan believes that governments in the US and the UK have forgotten that the use of force in the application of power must be the last resort, to be used only after every other approach has been exhausted. Most of us discover early in life that hitting your rival on the head with the nearest available weapon does not make for a good negotiating stance, there is little left to fall back on when the going gets really rough. Interestingly though, the general sees a glimmer of light in the all-encompassing and continually evolving actions against specific and non-specific terror. He believes that the recent recognition in Washington and Whitehall of existing problems may lead to more precise identification of the threat, clearer goals and a more sophisticated application of power, based on engagement, understanding and dialogue, not just on force.
He also suggests a tentative hope for the future of one area in the geographical puzzle — Afghanistan — based on a proper integrated strategy of security, development, governance, drug eradication and economic growth. He is clear that while the international community can provide development and infrastructure aid, policy implementation must be in the hands of the Afghan government without outside interference. At the moment, we are not delivering on our financial promises and the NGO effort is in chaos as most development aid goes through disparate, wasteful and corrupt channels. With the current regeneration of powerful insurgency and continuing border problems that require further military intervention at a cost to civilian efforts, there is still a long way to go.