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Times Online - Comment

April, 2004

We're not Bush's poodles: we're fighting on the right side of history.

IN BAGHDAD last month I went to see Paul Bremer, the head of the American-led coalition authority, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, his British counterpart. I was astonished to find that their offices were one and the same. Inside the former Royal Palace, one turns left under a splendid cupola, past armed guards and into a big outer office. On the left are a dozen or more British officials, civilian and military, and beyond them Greenstock's room. To the right, their American equivalents and Bremer. Gesticulating around this close-knit office, Greenstock said to me: "No one has ever seen such a close Anglo-American co-operation. Not since the Second World War have our senior officials worked more closely together." "Rubbish!" cry the critics in the Labour Party,on the BBC and in high-minded papers such as The Guardian. This is poodle crisis time, crow the naysayers - the so-called special relationship is rubbish, Tony Blair is routinely humiliated by George Bush, Iraq and now Israel have built a wall acrothe Atlantic.

As Mr Blair prepared to meet Mr Bush, such critics were in gleeful overdrive. British advice over both tactics and strategy in Iraq has been ignored, they claim, and now the Prime Minister has been humiliated by Mr Bush's embrace of Ariel Sharon's unilateral plans for the occupied territories.

MUCH OF THIS is sound and fury, signifying not much. Of course, on both Iraq and Israel we would rather not be where we are. But even a year ago no one would have believed that Mr Sharon, a self-confessed hardliner, would be the first Prime Minister in Tel Aviv to withdraw from Palestinian territory. An Israeli departure from Gaza marks a huge change. It is absurd to cry that this marks the end of the road map. On the contrary, it marks movement. Mr Bush is the first American President to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, an endorsement he repeated this week, insisting that it must be "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent". Mr Bush's position is far more likely to lead to a solution of the horrible, endlecrisis than all the self-righteous and unrealistic huffing and puffing of EU leaders such as Romano Prodi.

In Iraq all those - such as myself - who supported the war to remove Saddam Hussein, believed that we would have made more progrein helping the Iraqis to create a civil society. Of course there have been differences of approach on tactics and strategy. Of course each partner criticises the other - both on the ground and in the capitals. But the important thing is that they do so - always - as partners.

Most recently, perhaps, there is fear among some British officials that the tough US response to the nest of vipers hiding among civilians in Fallujah could be counter-productive and provoke more anti-American feeling. But British officials also agree that there is no easy answer - either you appear brutal or you appear weak. And when almost all Iraqis get their information from al-jazeera and al-Arabiya television stations, which rejoice in pouring poison on the efforts of the coalition, neither appearance is welcome. Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to Washington, pointed out this week that British and American officials are always robustly frank with each other in private and stand shoulder to shoulder in public. "The balance of private candour and public support works only if we really are candid in private," he said. It is that which makes the relationship special. No other European country has anything like it. And look at both Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr - der today; where has their anti-Americanism got them? Nowhere. After a temporary boost, each leader is discredited at home and abroad. Mr Blair's problems pale into insignificance beside theirs.

I HAVE many criticisms of Tony Blair but on the strategic issue of Iraq and the attempt to help the Arab world to find decent government both he and George Bush have been brave and right. When I was in Iraq last month every Iraqi I met said he was thankful we had overthrown Saddam Hussein. Most had criticisms of some coalition decisions; all were worried about security and none wanted endless occupation. But all had hope.

At June's G8 summit one of the principal items isssues will be reform in the Arab world. Consider: in one of the richest areas of the world, 40 per cent of adult Arabs (two thirds of them women) are illiterate. And consider: the combined GDP of the 22 Arab League states is lethan that of Spain. And consider: 50 million young Arabs will enter the labour market by 2010, 100 million by 2020. Six million new jobs will be needed each year.

Why does the future look so dire? One of the principal reasons is bad government. Saddam's was the worst in the Arab world, but there are many others. Syria is governed by a corrupt and despotic family clique; Egypt has been ruled by emergency decree since 1981. But why is reform in the Arab world on the G8 agenda? Not because of the EU. Because the Bush Administration has put it there. What Mr Blair, like most British prime ministers since the Second World War, understands is that the United States is the only nation that actually has the power to change the world for the better. It does not always do it. But by standing close to Washington, Britain for all its comparative weakness, can be on the right side of history. That is where we will be when a decent society is, no doubt with more pain yet, created in Iraq.


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