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Commentary 314 – November 2006
12 November 2006 (20:06:05)

FORTUNES OF WAR

Just before the Iraq invasion began, Liberator (Commentary 284) predicted that Blair’s illegal war would become his Suez. We were not entirely right; it has become worse than that.

With no coherent plan for post-invasion Iraq, and possessing no influence over President Bush, Labour has created a quagmire that has cost tens of thousands of lives, damaged the reputation of Britain and its armed forces, created a sort of giant adventure playground for terrorists and made this country more vulnerable to terrorism.

Meanwhile, Iraq is splintering, British and American forces flail around to little effect and Britain’s most senior soldier – astonishingly – is driven by despair to publicly denounce the government’s approach.

Blair’s foreign policy lies in ruins, and with it his reputation. His ‘place in history’ will be that of a blood-soaked failure.

Sooner or later, probably sooner, Britain and America will find some impressive-sounding excuse to leave Iraq, which will be used to cover up a retreat forced by an inability to contain local insurgents. From Britain’s Suez to Britain’s Vietnam.

Yet if Labour was bent on following American into Iraq, it might at least have given the armed forces a chance of accomplishing their task at the lowest risk to both themselves and Iraqi civilians.

There is another political scandal creeping out of Iraq to hit the government.

Liberal Democrats with large numbers of military constituents, or with links to the armed forces, are full of anecdotal tales of units bereft of basic supplies. Early in the war, there were reports of shortages of uniforms, protective gear and even weapons, which could conceivably have been put down to the demands of the moment. But it still appears to be going on.

The Ministry of Defence’s irresponsible profligacy with public money on major procurements is a long running scandal. Yet it appears incapable of ensuring that troops are properly equipped.

An inevitable result is that more of them get wounded. One of the less noticed of General Dannatt’s complaints was the poor and slow medical treatment offered to soldiers wounded in Iraq.

Having embroiled troops in an illegal war, and then failed to equip them to fight it, Labour is now routinely dissembling about the number of casualties and then failing to provide them with adequate treatment.

Liberal Democrats have not historically been close to the military, or enthusiastic about it, Paddy Ashdown being an obvious exception.

Two unprecedented things have happened as a result of Labour’s deceits and incompetence in Iraq.

For the first time, military families have organised protests about the effect on their relatives – whether serving, wounded or dead – of government policy. A section of the community normally politically invisible has been driven to speak out by what is happening, and may do the government serious damage if it chooses to adopt a higher profile.

The other was Dannatt’s outburst. He should not have said what he did. There is a separation of the military and politics for a good reason, and Liberal Democrats should support it; we do not want soldiers intervening in politics just because on this occasion we agree with them.

The effect of his remarks was to reinforce a public suspicion that Blair has abused the armed forces’ professionalism at the behest of a foreign government and, in doing so, had abjectly shown up the puny limits of Britain’s ‘independent’ foreign policy.

Two avenues will open to the Liberal Democrats from this fresh concern about Iraq.

The first is that the climate of opinion towards Europe could be made more favourable.

Paranoid rantings about Britain being ‘ruled from Brussels’ look petty silly when events since 2002 show it far more effectively ‘ruled’ from Washington. While Britain has a voice and vote in Brussels, it has neither in the American capital.

The second concerns the looming debate on Trident replacement. There is a sound argument that this debate is bogus, since the military hardware will be ‘good’ for decades hence.

Blair has raised the issue to win a few cheap headlines in the right wing press and to distance himself from the ghosts of 1980s Labour. He no doubt hopes to paint anyone who opposes Trident renewal as unpatriotic.

Trident is grossly expensive. It is neither British, nor independent, nor a deterrent, and the idea of renewing it while conventional forces go without protective gear is grotesque.

Blair may very well try to paint the Liberal Democrats as unpatriotic if they oppose Trident renewal.

Let him. There is no difficulty in throwing that change back at a prime minister (and his probable successor) who takes orders from a foreign government, and there is no political mileage whatever in the party ending up taking the same position as Labour and the Tories.

That would leave those who oppose Trident with no-one to vote for, and those who support it with no reason to desert the other parties.

Blair sees politics as though it were still the mid-1980s. That is no reason for the Lib Dems to remain there.

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