War games

Bush and Blair are making up their Iraq policy as they go along. That's what makes it so dangerous.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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There was a flurry of speeches and statements from Bush and Blair officials over the weekend – but what exactly is happening in and around the Gulf? That all depends on which newspaper you read.

If you take the UK Telegraph, then ‘allied commanders are drawing up plans to fight a war against Iraq entirely at night, allowing an invasion during the heat of summer’ (1). Apparently, with their ‘advanced battlefield night-vision’, a relatively small number of US troops could beat Saddam’s troops under cover of darkness. ‘A summer invasion gives Bush the option of delaying an attack until all the military and political factors are in his favour’, says the Telegraph (2).

But if you prefer the Washington Post, then America is ‘assembling a force of 100,000 to invade Iraq’ in the traditional way – ie, with loads of soldiers and during daylight. ‘The US military is assembling a ground force for a possible invasion of Iraq that could exceed 100,000 troops’, says the Post (3). And forget waiting for the ‘heat of summer’ – according to the Post, there could be an invasion as early as February.

If you read the Sydney Morning Herald, then the war has already started. ‘Undercover war begins as US forces enter Iraq’, says the Herald, reporting that 100 US special forces are inside Iraq ‘marking minefields and helping their pilots target air-defence systems’ (4). Add to this the fact that US and UK warplanes bombed Southern Iraq again on 4 January 2003 and, according to one commentator, ‘[I]t is clear that war is not only inevitable – it’s happening already’.

But according to British and US officials, war with Iraq is not a certainty. ‘War is not inevitable’, says UK foreign secretary Jack Straw (5). According to one British minister, living up to the New Labour government’s image for policy-by-numbers, the Iraq crisis has gone from a ‘60:40 likelihood of conflict to a 60:40 likelihood of peace’ (6). For Paul Wolfowitz, America’s hawkish deputy of defence, ‘Until we’ve exhausted every peaceful means, one cannot say the use of force is inevitable’ (7).

This morning’s BBC Online News reports that UK prime minister Tony Blair is planning to talk up his special relationship with America. In a speech to British ambassadors in London later today, says the BBC, Blair will insist that ‘it is massively in our national interest to remain the closest ally of the United States’ (8). ‘The price of influence is that you do not leave the US to face the most difficult issues alone’, Blair will say (9).

But according to the Telegraph, it’s one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans in high-falutin’ speeches but another to do so on the ground. A retired British officer claims that ‘British troops should not be sent to fight in Iraq unless a system is in place to prevent accidental attacks by American aircraft’ (10). ‘Politicians should consider very carefully the risk that they could be imposing on our troops’, he says – the risk of American bombs, that is, not Iraqi attacks.

So America is either sending a relatively small number of troops with infrared goggles to defeat Saddam at night, or it’s planning a full-on 100,000-strong invasion. Officials claim that war isn’t inevitable, while others reckon it’s already underway. And while British politicians talk up their united stance with the US, their troops on the ground fear America’s misguided missiles. What’s going on – and what’s not going on?

The confused and uncertain coverage of the Gulf reflects the confusion and uncertainty at the heart of American and British policy on Iraq. It is the incoherence of Bush and Blair’s plans for Iraq that creates the space for so much out-loud speculation about their intentions. The lack of direction among British and American officials creates a kind of canvas on to which we can all project our own interpretation of events, and our preferred course of action over Saddam.

Bush and Blair continue to up the rhetoric against Iraq, while failing to outline anything like a long-term policy or strategy. This combination – a lack of vision with endless rhetoric – has the effect of raising people’s expectations of action over Iraq. And now many seem to be filling in the gaps with their own speculation.

Both the American and British governments are keen to keep Iraq alive as an international issue, constantly issuing statements and edicts about Saddam’s threat to world peace and the West’s responsibility to sort him out. But they lack the nerve to do very much about it, to act decisively against the alleged threat that they have made central to their foreign policies. The end result is increased war talk against Iraq combined with caution over launching a war.

Consider Blair’s speech to British ambassadors today. He outlines his support for American intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, but with nothing approaching political passion. The British government has little choice but to fall in line behind US foreign policy but it seems cautious about throwing its weight behind an actual invasion of Iraq. This is reflected in the fact that, even as Blair proudly commits British troops to war on Iraq, on the ground the British military is far from prepared. It is far behind American forces in its build-up in the Gulf, and according to one report, British forces would be hard pressed to get to Iraq in large numbers for a February invasion (11).

British and American officials are making up their Iraq policy as they go along. In mid-2002, when the war on terror was still in the limelight and bin Laden still the number-one target of American foreign policy, the Bush administration said it was focusing on Iraq because of its links with international terrorism. On Saddam and bin Laden, Bush said: ‘I can’t distinguish between the two, because they’re both equally as bad, and equally as evil and equally as destructive.’ (12)

But as the war on terror spread further outwards at the end of 2002, with North Korea becoming public enemy number one in December, claims of a Saddam/bin Laden link died down, and we were back to the ‘rogue state’ argument. ‘As a state of concern, Iraq poses a threat to its own people and to its neighbours’, said one Bush official, claiming that ‘like North Korea, Saddam-led Iraq is a dangerous entity in its own right’.

When the Bush administration faced a barrage of accusations in August 2002 that it could get mired down in Iraq like it did in Vietnam, officials promised that any invasion of Iraq would be a speedy affair. ‘This is not Afghanistan’, said one official, claiming that America’s aim is to remove Saddam and change the regime, ‘not to take over the regime’ and ‘become embroiled.’ (13)

But in January 2003, in response to ‘internal concerns’ that the US was reneging on its responsibility to nation-build, the Bush administration announced a detailed plan to take over the ‘administering and democratisation’ of Iraq for at least 18 months after any war. According to the New York Times, the post-Saddam proposals ‘amount to the most ambitious American effort to administer a country since the occupations of Japan and Germany at the end of the Second World War’ (14).

This is foreign policy by kneejerk – where announcements and strategies on Iraq are influenced more by the concerns of the moment than by any long-term vision. The clashing claims in the world media reflect the war games in the White House and Downing Street, where Bush and Blair officials opportunistically chop and change their story on Iraq.

As for the Iraqi people, they won’t be able to kick back and relax in the face of British and American indecision. With troop movements, practice invasions, heightened uncertainty and a lack of policy, there is no telling what the British and Americans might unleash on Iraq – or when, or where, or why. If you’ve got a gun pointed at your head, how much worse if it’s by someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) US opens way for summer war in Iraq to be fought at night, Sean Rayment, Daily Telegraph, 5 January 2003

(2) US opens way for summer war in Iraq to be fought at night, Sean Rayment, Daily Telegraph, 5 January 2003

(3) US assembling a force of 100,000 to invade Iraq, Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, 6 January 2003

(4) Undercover war begins as US forces enter Iraq, John Donnelly, Syndey Morning Herald, 6 January 2003

(5) War with Iraq not inevitable – Straw, BBC News, 6 January 2003

(6) War with Iraq not inevitable – Straw, BBC News, 6 January 2003

(7) Iraq pledges to meet UN deadline; inspectors search palace, Haitham Haddadin, Reuters, 3 December 2002

(8) Blair presses US over global agenda, Andrew Marr, BBC News, 7 January 2003

(9) Blair presses US over global agenda, Andrew Marr, BBC News, 7 January 2003

(10) Friendly fire threat to Gulf troops, Michael Smith, Daily Telegraph, 6 January 2003

(11) Britain looks set to mobilise troops for Iraq, Reuters, 7 January 2003

(12) See We think there’s a link, by Brendan O’Neill

(13) Debating the Iraqi invasion, PBS, 7 August 2002

(14) US is completing plan to promote a democratic Iraq, David E Sanger and James Dao, New York Times, 5 January 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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