Unrepentant empire

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The long shadow of the Iraq war still hangs over British politics.

Instead of assuaging worries about the government's role in the war, and drawing a line under it, Gordon Brown's announcement of an inquiry into the war rekindled all the opposition and discontent which led to the mass movement against the war in the first place.

Brown's own goal is quite remarkable. Just days after committing to greater transparency and democracy he announced an inquiry in secret, which would not apportion blame and would be conducted by four knights and a baroness.

One of the knights, Sir John Chilcot, sat on the Butler inquiry - widely regarded as a whitewash; another, Sir Martin Gilbert, historian of Winston Churchill, said George Bush and Tony Blair might be compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill; a third, Sir Laurence Freedman, wrote Blair's Chicago speech on humanitarian intervention in 1999.

Hardly an unbiased bunch. Even Butler has now said that Brown is putting his interests before national interest. The military top brass have complained, and the Tories have tabled a parliamentary debate. None of these people objected to the war before it happened. But that was then.

Why are they making a fuss now? First, Gordon Brown has hung on as prime minister but he has no real power. His government is at an all time low, with disastrous European parliament election results, a rash of ministers sacked or having resigned over the expenses scandal and strong odds on a Tory government within the year. The second reason is the damage the war did to the establishment. The generals are worried that the military has been permanently harmed by the war and that a secret inquiry will do nothing to redress this.

The decision by parliament to vote for war in March 2003 produced contempt for politicians which only increased with the expenses scandal. So the Iraq war marks a political failure in Britain as well as in the Middle East.

This matters because the imperialist project remains intact, despite the departures of Bush and Blair. That was clear from Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last month. It was well received in some quarters and was heralded as a new beginning. Some of it had an appeal. After years of Bush promoting militant Christianity and talking of crusades, Obama's quoting from the Koran, defending women wearing the hijab and talking about the Muslim contribution to civilisation and learning was a welcome change.

However, the speech beyond the soundbites is a rather different matter. Obama mostly reiterated US policy formulated by Bush and Bill Clinton before him. He made it clear that "violent extremism" was the cause of many of the problems between the US and the "Muslim world" and that this justified the war in Afghanistan.

He stated, "America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable." Obama called for a two-state solution and criticised the settlements, but failed to mention, let alone condemn, the bombardment of Gaza which killed more than 1,300 in January. While his speech is credited with forcing an acknowledgement of a Palestinian state from right wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel still proceeds with its settlements.

Obama also dealt with nuclear weapons, women's rights, democracy and economic development. Here the message was clear: the Middle East and south Asia could benefit from the modernity and free markets which the US is so eager to spread round the world.

He referred to misunderstandings between the US and Muslims. Strange that these "misunderstandings" began when the US started to take a greater interest in the oil-rich region of the Middle East.

US troops remain in Iraq and are being poured into Afghanistan. Obama claimed that the US had no desire for a permanent presence or bases in these countries. But there are very few countries invaded or occupied by the US where it has not maintained bases, and there are a string of bases across the Middle East and Asia.

There are now more British troops in Afghanistan than there were in Iraq. The rate of deaths of British soldiers there is increasing. But the war is not being won, with talk of it becoming a new 30-year war or a new Vietnam. The legacy of Iraq weighs heavily on the British ruling class and hampers its ability to fight this and future wars. Hence the need for closure on Iraq and why many top military figures and Tories are critical of Brown's proposal.

Brown is too weak not to make some concessions on this. Iraq just won't go away, and now we have a year's inquiry to remind people what their opposition to the war was all about.