Brown must break with Bush now

The new UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s views on the war in Iraq are said to be unknown. It is not just that Brown was a member of the cabinet that decided on war. There is plenty of evidence that he was a wholehearted supporter, rather than a man who acquiesced in silence. Two days before the House of Commons voted to attack Iraq, Brown endorsed the government case in measured terms on the Breakfast With Frost TV show. “Gordon launched a passionate statement of support for Tony’s strategy,” the late Robin Cook wrote in his memoirs of the last cabinet he attended.

Once the decision to invade was taken, the next big mistake was for the US and Britain not to hand the issue over to the UN as soon as Saddam was toppled. Had they done so, as happened in Afghanistan, Iraqis could have chosen their own government. Short resigned over the issue, but Brown backed the US-UK line, as he threw himself into the largely unsuccessful task of getting international funds for reconstruction.

The best that can be said about Brown’s line on the invasion is that he was not such a crusader for regime change in Iraq as Blair — but then no one in Britain was. The best that can be said about his likely policy as prime minister is that he is more of a realist than Blair. Having supported the twin blunders of invading Iraq and installing a western occupation, will he recognise the mess that has ensued and start to resolve it? Brown’s recent utterances are not encouraging. In his keynote speech accepting the Labour leadership last Sunday he talked of “learning lessons” from Iraq, but did not specify what they were. He talked of “meeting our obligations”, but declined to say what these were either. He talked about “defeating terrorist extremism”, as though this was the central issue in Iraq — a clear sign that he has not yet bothered to focus on the matter or have candid discussions with Britain’s top brass.

Brown should read the International Crisis Group’s latest report, Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra, which argues convincingly that Britain’s effort to clean up the city’s police through Operation Sinbad, has failed. “Its tangible impact appears negligible. There is wide scale diversion of funds and the work performed is often shoddy,” it says.

It is not surprising that the British military has pulled most troops back to Basra airport. But they still remain in excessive numbers, at just over 5,000, and continue to conduct patrols which risk soldiers’ lives for no long-term purpose. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the British government has been holding its troops in Iraq as hostages.

Brown now has an opportunity to change that. He should have the courage to see that breaking with Bush will not do lasting damage to Britain’s relationship with the US. Bush would not be pleased by a withdrawal but cannot afford to punish or cold-shoulder Britain. Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands are loyal NATO members who supported the invasion then withdrew their troops without seeing their friendship with Washington suffer. France and Germany rejected Bush’s war but have warm relationships with the White House, although both Merkel and Sarkozy are no more willing to help militarily in Iraq than their predecessors. Why should a British departure from Iraq produce more anger than anyone else’s? — The Guardian