Tony Blair insists British troops cannot leave Iraq until Iraq's own police and army can guarantee security. It is, of course, the same argument that George W. Bush uses to justify keeping close to 150,000 U.S. soldiers in the country. Never mind the fact that pulling foreign troops out would almost certainly improve Iraq's security, since much of the violence is directed against the occupation. Without the occupation, the insurgency would decline dramatically.
Let us take Blair's position at face value. Has he not noticed that in Basra and the other two southeastern provinces where British forces are based the insurgency barely exists? It is true that another British soldier died last week in Amara, a traditionally difficult town, but Basra has been quiet for months. Suicide bombers are conspicuous by their absence. Attacks on British forces are rare, and fatalities even rarer. On Iraq's election day in January there was almost no violence.
The reasons are varied, the main one being that the Shiite political groups that control Basra are taking the long view. They form the backbone of Iraq's new government in Baghdad and have no particular complaint with the current drift of Iraqi politics nationally. Although they are Islamists, the conservative stamp they have put on the city has not been opposed by the British.
The radical Shiites around cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who strongly denounce the occupation and have taken up arms against it, are not as active in Basra as they are in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf, which is closer to the capital.
So although there are special factors that explain it, the bottom line is that Iraq's southeast has no real insurgency to speak of. Why, then, are British troops needed? What is the threat they are allegedly deterring, and that Iraqis cannot handle on their own? There is none. Forget the clichéis about "not cutting and running." Cut the rhetoric about "the need to finish the job." British troops could pull out immediately, and neither the people of Iraq's southeast nor the people of Britain would regret it.
Bush would not be pleased, but the American president has had to accept that other once-staunch allies have changed their minds and withdrawn their forces. Spain, the Netherlands and Poland have seen the light, under pressure from their own electorates.
Now Blair should do the same. How can we say we are trying to bring democracy to Iraq, he should tell the White House, and then not recognize democracy at home? Ten days before the general election a poll showed that 60 percent of Britons wanted British troops out by the end of this year. Last week's slashing of the Labor parliamentary majority reinforced that view.
By accepting that most British people want us out of Iraq, and telling Bush we cannot remain there purely out of solidarity with the Americans, Blair could go a long way toward restoring the public trust he has lost during the past two and a half years. It would not completely erase the effect of Iraq on his premiership (nothing will), but it would at least be a sign that he understands how unpopular his policies over Iraq have been.
Blair will never admit he was wrong on Iraq, let alone that he lied. But by bringing his policies into line with the majority of the British people, some of the taint of arrogance would be wiped away.
Iraq has been a kind of slow-motion Suez for Blair. Like Eden in 1956, he took Britain to war in error, but whereas Eden was forced to resign within three months of his blunder, Blair will have taken four or five years to go. For Eden it was more humiliating, since what undid him was not the unpopularity of the war. The Guardian and Observer opposed Suez, but most British people supported the invasion. It was U.S. opposition that undid Eden. When Dwight Eisenhower came out against the invasion of Egypt, Eden had no choice but to take the blame.
Blair's circumstances are different. There was no majority for the war before it started, and apart from a few weeks while the invasion was under way, there has been no such support since.
Ultimately, it is a matter of courage. Has Blair the guts to tell Bush that he cannot stand beside him any longer on a war that is unpopular in Britain? British troops have been in occupation in Basra for more than two years. Their job is done. They should leave now.