Brown cuts & runs
The glorious British retreat from the Basra Palace – “probably the worst palace in the world”
In the New Yorker last week, Sy Hersh, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, reported that Britain is ready to join the United States in an attack on Iran. Or at least the Americans think so. Quoth he:
The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Hersh is a distinguished and sometimes reliable journalist. He is to be commended for a robust approach even if his expertise evidently does not extend to the method by which Gordon Brown recently became prime minister. Unless I missed something, this did not include any kind of election.
Nevertheless, perhaps the British media might be expected to take an interest in this claim/revelation. And indeed, the story eventually made its way to page 35 of The Sunday Telegraph. Tim Shipman now quotes officials in Washington to support (up to a point) Hersh’s story:
Gordon Brown has agreed to support US air strikes against Iran if the Islamic republic orchestrates large-scale attacks by militants against British or American forces in Iraq, according to senior Pentagon officials.
But this is a somewhat different story to that of Hersh, as premier Brown’s support now seems contingent.
Whether Hersh had it right, or Shipman does, or neither, this was about the limit of British press interest in the story.
After all, there are new pictures of Princess Diana! Maddie is still missing! Plus free DVDs for every reader!
Happily, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, a serious fellow, finally asked the prime minister about this at his news conference on Monday. Here is the exchange:
Prime Minister, you have said that you want to listen to the British people. One of the things that the British people seem to be demonstrating is no appetite for any new war related to Iraq. Yet the war drums are banging in Washington for an attack on Iran. Are you prepared to follow previous Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in saying that such an attack is inconceivable. And indeed are you prepared to go further and say that you would neither support nor assist any American attack on Iran?
I will follow what I have said myself only recently that we take very seriously what the Iranians are trying to do in building up their nuclear capability for nuclear weapons. This cannot go unchallenged given that it is a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If they do not co-operate with the international authorities that are examining their nuclear installations, or potential nuclear installations, that is a very big breach of international rules as well. And we believe however that this matter can be resolved by diplomatic means, by the Resolutions that have been passed by the United Nations, by sanctions if necessary, but I am not prepared to go further than that. What I am prepared to say is we take very seriously what Iran is proposing and we are prepared to use the methods that we have used in diplomatic sanctions to deal with this problem and I do not rule out anything.
Looking at this, it is rather masterfully ambiguous (even after the Downing Street editors have corrected the prime minister’s repeated confusion of Iraq and Iran as he delivered this answer). Brown firmly rules out an attack on Iran when he says “we believe that this matter can be resolved by diplomatic means… by sanctions if necessary, but I am not prepared to go further than that.” Then he technically rules the possibility back in again with: “I do not rule out anything.”
So this is a master class in saying two completely contradictory things at the same time. But here’s what I think. Hersh is wrong. And not just about the British electoral system. With citation to Sam Goldwyn, as far as any adventures in Iran are concerned, you can include Britain out.I reckon Brown, who was never an enthusiast for this war and endorsed it purely as a matter of preserving his own career, is sick of Iraq, has no stomach for a conflict with Iran, and that what we’re already watching is Gordon leading the Brits on a cut and run.
Another fascinating exchange came when the prime minister answered a question from Robin Oakley of CNN, who very reasonably asked the following:
Prime Minister you have presented yourself so far as a national leader who looks above petty party-political advantage. Why did you go to Basra to announce a withdrawal of British troops by Christmas, do it at the time of the Conservative Party Conference to take headlines off your opponents, and use somewhat phoney figures, since a quarter of those you said would be coming home had come home already. Isn’t that just the kind of Blairite spinning that you are supposed to stand against?
I think you are wrong in every respect if I may say with some respect to you. I think the facts do not merit these accusations. First of all I had to go to Iraq, to Baghdad and Basra, before I made my Statement in the House of Commons. I think the criticism of me today might have been that I had not had the chance to hear from the troops on the ground, to hear from our military commanders, to meet Prime Minister Al Maliki, to meet the Vice-President, to meet the Ministers for Finance, for Trade and for the Economy to discuss not just troop movements, but also to discuss economic reconstruction in Iraq. As far as what I said, I think you will see when I announce it in the House of Commons this afternoon that my Statement is far more comprehensive about all these things than anything that was said in Basra, and I think you will also find the statement about numbers that I made in Iraq is absolutely accurate.
This seems rather insulting to Robin Oakley! Who is correct here? Both, obviously, The prime minister is a master at counting things once, twice, or as many times as necessary. He subsequently went on to confuse matters still further with talk in the House of Commons of further troop withdrawals accompanied by “briefings” that all the boys would be home by 2008. Whereas Oakley is right that the stunt in Basra was an exercise in tortured accounting, even if Brown is too slippery ever to make the charge stick.
What 2,500 British soliders left in the “Cob” at the airport are supposed to do is left rather vague. Some have driven up to the Iran border with TV crews. Others are filmed training Iraqi soldiers. It is an army now tasked to photo opportunity.
Brown is playing a slippery game, but the troops are indeed coming out of Iraq. Even if they are going to Afghanistan, which is another disaster in the making.
A giant, transparent spin offensive is underway to pretend we have won after all in Basra, with friendly hacks like Con Coughlin of the newly pro-government Daily Telegraph filing magnificently clairvoyant copy from the airport describing the improvements since our army’s triumphant
retreat advance from what the soldiers called the worst palace in the world.
In the British-controlled southern Iraqi city of Basra there is a palpable sense that, after four years of incessant bloodshed, a corner is being turned in the struggle to bring the city back to something approaching normality.
But there is no evidence from his copy that he was even there!
Image from Telegraph web site, two days after Coughlin ponounces peace in our time
Coughlin, who just happened to be at the Cob when Brown later dropped by to annouce the withdrawal of troops who had already left, later went on to warn that premature withdrawals could threaten the success achieved by the British. Delusional.
Insofar as the story of a British triumph is concerned, Coughlin at least reveals what he was briefed by officers following MoD-approved scripts. The line is that we have given the Iraqi people the chance to have a nice stable, rich democracy – it’s up to them. By inference, whatever goes wrong in the future is their fault, not ours. That we were responsible for launching an invasion that has seen the place smashed to bits, with probably 100,000 killed and millions displaced, is not mentioned.
Here, though, is the question for the future. We know this about Brown. He is a bit of a coward. He puts his own survival first. He’s not stupid. A man for whom cowardice, caution and prudence are core, does not and cannot like war, which is always highly unpredictable and frightening.
With Iraq off the table, is Brown really prepared to unleash the dogs of war in Afghanistan? This is a campaign that is going to see lots of people killed and a lot of money being spent as even Jock Stirrup’s ropey Eurofighters are sent into the fray to drop bombs on mud huts.
Does Brown have the stomach for this? Me – I’m not sure. And with the Tories as gung-ho on the Pathun adventure as ever, perhaps the PM has something else in mind. To win his deferred election as the man who brought all of this nonsense to an end. Methinks (hopes anyway) that this is the turning point. Think prudence.