Brown In, Troops Out?

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Will Gordon Brown pull the troops out of Iraq? He'd be a fool if he didn't try.

After all, the most recent election results demonstrate a high degree of hostility †“ still - to his predecessor's most disastrous policy. It is widely assumed that the victory of the Scottish National Party in Scotland was in a large part down to an anti-war vote.

The war remains unpopular everywhere, opposition to it is embedded deep into popular consciousness and its escalating costs are counterposed to government parsimony in nearly every other area of government spending.

What could be better for Brown than distancing himself from Blair's legacy of disaster, gaining popularity by posing as a peacemaker, and maybe even scoring that elusive peace dividend in the process?

The recent headlines projecting a Brown visit to Iraq in the near future reflect the desire to pin the blame on Blair and break free of that particular part of the legacy, perhaps by accelerating the partial withdrawal of troops due at the end of this year.

During Brown's recent visit to make friends with George Bush, it cannot have escaped his notice that the "surge" of 25,000 extra troops sent in by the US earlier this year has failed, and that opinion in the US is hardening in favour of a date for troop withdrawal. This extends even to the whole range of Democrat hopefuls for next year's presidential election campaign.

The most important role of British troops in Iraq has always been to provide political cover for the US, suggesting there is a broad coalition supporting Bush's policy rather then the actual ever decreasing group of disparate and unwillingly belligerent nations.

It would be so tempting for Brown to change policy on Iraq, especially given the pressure in the US as well - tempting, but still very difficult. Anything close to full withdrawal would be an admission of failure so spectacular that it would put in the shade the US's humiliating retreat from Vietnam in the mid-1970s.

The consequences of a retreat from Iraq would in one stroke give heart to those countries that oppose the US presence, most notably the increasingly influential Iran. Conversely, US client states in the region, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would weaken.

Those consequences would be felt across large parts of the world, weakening the occupying coalition in Afghanistan, causing greater instability in Pakistan, and exacerbating tensions caused by recent wars in Lebanon and Somalia.

It would be a victory not just for the Iraqis who have resisted occupation from day one, but for the Palestinians and all those who support them.

This is probably why Gordon Brown, like a good Presbyterian, won't yield to the temptation.

So what if he does bite the bullet and stay firm, shoulder to shoulder with George Bush? Well, then there will be increased instability, now spreading to the Kurdish areas of Iraq, a greater threat of terrorism as Al Qaida spreads, and the sense that at some point the unthinkable will become thinkable and the occupiers will leave. There is also the threat of further wars, especially with Iran.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Brown will probably talk of change, make high profile visits to Iraq, but do very little. Meanwhile the situation deteriorates, making eventual withdrawal more costly in terms of the lives of both Iraqis and British soldiers.

His favoured option will probably be to begin decreasing troop numbers in Iraq while using them to boost forces fighting in Afghanistan.

This was the strategy followed by Tony Blair some months ago when he announced 1,500 troops were to withdraw from Iraq. The government hopes that it can sell Afghanistan as the "good" war - an impossible job over Iraq - and so maintain its close collaboration with George Bush in the war on terror. There is certainly no sign that Brown wants to end the "special relationship" that has done such damage in the past few years.

His problem is the worsening situation in Iraq. Now even George Bush is talking of United Nations involvement in a solution - an admission that US strategy has failed. And there is no sign that anti-war sentiment is softening or weakening. Indeed, the sense of frustration over Tony Blair escaping responsibility for the war to spend more time with his memoirs is fuelling determination not to be fooled again, not by Brown or anyone else.

Brown's first meeting in front of party members in Coventry had the war forced onto the agenda when a Stop the War supporter called for the troops to be withdrawn, before being promptly bundled out of the hall. Right from the start of his term of office the war will haunt him. That's because this isn't just personal; it's political. If Brown doesn't understand that, he is in for a surprise.


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