Bush and Blair demand support over Iraq but have no strategy
Just after George Bush was awarded the presidency for the first time by the US courts, I was invited to Downing Street for a chat on the sofa with the prime minister to work out an approach to the new administration. I was struck by how troubled Tony Blair was that the Conservatives would make their pitch that only a Tory prime minister could do business with a Republican president. He was therefore determined to stick even more closely to the new White House incumbent than he had to Bill Clinton.
Ironically, the success of the prime minister's strategy in making himself George Bush's best mate has turned out not to be a political asset but a colossal albatross around his neck. It proved such a liability at the last election that even the Conservative party ran election adverts exploiting negatives shots of Blair and Bush standing shoulder to shoulder.
At least Tony Blair used to be able to claim that his friend George Bush may not be much respected in Britain but was popular in the US and could deliver America. Not anymore. Tony Blair now finds himself chained to a US president who is more unpopular than any other second-term president since Nixon, and, worst of all, the major cause of the collapse in his ratings is their joint adventure in Iraq.
George Bush is discovering that the first law of wars of occupation is that they are more often lost at home than on the ground. It is a measure of the sinking support for his policy in Iraq that he chose to offer his defence of it to an audience of red berets, who would be court-martialled if they heckled their commander in chief.
At least though the US president has addressed his nation on their doubts. The same cannot be said for our prime minister, who has famously "moved on" from Iraq. Tony Blair again demonstrated his solidarity with George Bush by offering a late evening interview to Associated Press. It was released at 9pm, perfectly judged to catch the deadlines of the papers in the US while missing the morning press in Britain.
In that interview, Tony Blair professes himself "astonished" at the debate in America over the leaked Downing Street memorandum of July 2002, which revealed that the president had "made up his mind to take military action" long before he told the public. But what should really astonish the rest of us is that there is no such debate going on in Britain. The memorandum that is causing such a stir in America is, after all, a minute of our government, and our nation is entitled to some answers. Most notably, how could our prime minister go on publicly claiming that no decision had been made when he had privately committed himself a year before to "back military action" and was asking ministers to "create the conditions" that would make war legal.
Nor can we let either leader shrug off questions about how we stumbled into this quagmire by telling us that we must win this battle against terror. There were no international terrorists in Iraq until Bush and Blair insisted on invading it, creating the perfect conditions for terrorism - weak central authority, porous borders and an alienated population. The CIA has concluded that Iraq has been turning into the breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists, which is precisely what the British intelligence agencies warned the prime minister in advance of the invasion.
Not that any rational person would disagree that we need to make Iraq a more stable country. The problem with responding to their appeal for support is that, demonstrably, they have no credible strategy of how to win. Their present approach is fatally flawed by two delusions.
The first is the belief that they will win if only they can kill, capture or bury under rubble every insurgent. After relentlessly pursuing this approach for two years, the US military is worse off than when it started. In June there were more casualties among coalition troops and Iraqi forces than a year ago in the same month - before the handover of sovereignty that we were promised would transform security. We will continue to lose this conflict until US forces grasp that they breed more insurgents by the indiscriminate use of firepower and by putting higher priority on killing rebels rather than protecting civilians.
The second delusion is the insistence that military occupation of Iraq is the solution to the violence and not a large part of its cause. No strategy to end the insurgency is going to succeed unless it includes an exit plan for foreign troops.
Both George Bush and Tony Blair appealed this week for strong nerves from everyone else. But they also have a responsibility. Peace in Iraq will only be possible if they show the humility to admit the mistakes of the past and to accept that the recent strategy is not working.