Thursday 17 April 2003

Blair's alliance with Bush is a damaging strategic error

War has undermined Britain in both Europe and the developing world

by Robin Cook

The moment of triumphalism must have seemed tantalisingly brief to the hawks. Within hours, the photo-op of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue was crowded out of the bulletins by scenes of looting and lawlessness. Having won the military conflict, the Bush administration appeared curiously unprepared for what to do next in Baghdad.

For Britain the question of what to do next must start with counting the collateral damage from the war to our international standing. Most immediately, there is the division it has put between us and our major European partners. Labour's objective on taking office in 1997 was to make Britain a partner of equal importance in a triangle with Germany and France. After the divisions over Iraq, Europe is back to a Franco-German axis, with Britain once again the odd one out.

Then there is the damage to our standing in the developing world, where we are now widely perceived to have supported a war not of liberation but of imperialism. This is particularly true in the Islamic nations. The most difficult strategic question in international affairs is how the west can reach accommodation with the Islamic world. Britain is well placed to contribute to finding the answer because of our multicultural society and tradition of tolerance. Yet the war in Iraq limits our ability to act as an interlocutor with the Islamic and, especially, the Arab nations.

The longer the west tries to run Iraq, the greater will be the resentment. Washington shows no grasp that its determined efforts to keep the UN on the margins are against its own best interests. Bush needs to hand over the running of Iraq to a more legitimate international authority before his army of liberation morphs into an army of occupation. He should heed the advice of Iraq's senior cleric: "You toppled Saddam, now leave."

Nor can the west pretend, after such a dramatic demonstration of its power, that it is a passive spectator in the Middle East peace process. The war in Iraq was justified on the grounds that after a decade Washington had lost patience waiting on Saddam to fulfil his obligations under UN resolutions. Yet the Palestinians have waited three decades for Israel to fulfil its obligations under resolution 242 to withdraw from the occupied territories.

In short, restoring the standing of Britain throughout the Islamic world depends on US withdrawal from Iraq and on Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank. The awkward position for us as the junior partner in the coalition is that the key to progress on both lies not in our hands but in those of President Bush. And here we come to the fundamental foreign policy dilemma for Britain. It is what kind of relationship we can maintain with the US while it is under neoconservative management.

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