Michael Ancram, Iain Duncan Smith’s Shadow Foreign Secretary at the time the Tories supported the Iraq war, has called for British troops to leave the troubled nation. The nation has descended into civil war, he writes in the vociferously and consistently anti-war Daily Mail, and British forces should get out of the firing line.
Mr Ancram is right to use his article to say that post-war reconstruction plans were inadequate. He criticises the decision to dismantle Iraq’s own security forces and the creation of a “vacuum into which the insurgents, the terrorists and the fundamentalists swiftly poured”. But his own ‘troops out now’ plea will create at least as serious a vacuum now. His article offers no reassurance that Iraq will be more secure if British troops leave. He offers no plan of action – only a message of despair. The likelihood is that the situation will only deteriorate if his recommendations were to be accepted. Iraqi troops remain insufficient in number and training to either contain or counter the insurgency. Without British or American troops in Iraq the risk of Syria or Iran becoming involved can only grow. The terrorists will have won a mighty victory against us and won’t use the opportunity of British withdrawal to begin a peaceful retirement. Even though most Tory members now think the Iraq war was a mistake a majority don’t support precipitate troop withdrawals. They know that it would be wrong – morally and practically – to ‘cut and run’.
Mr Ancram highlights American “talk of ‘hunkering down’ for the duration of any such civil conflict”. “To my mind that would be pointless and dangerous,” he writes. Yes it would be pointless and dangerous if that was the American strategy but until Mr Ancram mentioned “hunkering down” I had never heard of it as a strategy. Mr Ancram is setting up a straw man to knock down. The coalition forces continue to take action against insurgency cells and the Iraqi government wants them to continue to do so. As John McCain has argued (see here) there is much more that coalition troops could do but, even now, they are not “hunkering down” and hoping for the best. They are acting themselves and training Iraqi troops to replace them.
Fortunately the official Conservative position is much wiser than that adopted by Mr Ancram. This was Liam Fox’s recent statement on the situation:
"Like everyone else here I want to see our troops come home as soon as possible, but that can only be done when we are confident that the Iraq we leave behind is a functioning, stable nation. To depose a brutal dictator only to leave behind a failed state would be a terrible legacy. Worse still, it would see Iran left standing as the regional superpower – a situation US and British foreign policy has spent almost thirty years trying to avoid. If we leave Iraq prematurely the answer to the question "who won the Iraq war?" will be: Iran. That would be the worst answer of all."
The other vacuum in this whole affair is the failure of David Cameron to say anything substantial about the foreign policy issues of our day – Iraq, Iran or Darfur – since he became leader. Without his clear leadership senior Tories like Mr Ancram will feel at liberty to freelance as he has done today.
We are all, of course, anxious about Iraq’s troubles today because of the daily drip-feed of bad news from the country but how many Britons are aware that more Iraqis died when Saddam crushed the Shiite uprising after the first Iraq war (which Bush I and Major encouraged) than have died in the second Iraq war? (Acknowledgement to David Brooks). As Mr Brooks said: "The world wasn’t bothered by that extermination — there were no rallies in the streets." We’re not bothered about Darfur. We’re hardly bothered about the unfolding famine in East Africa. We’re only bothered by what broadcasters choose to top the news bulletins. Shameful.