Neither will admit that Iraq is a disaster. But while their state of denial may cost votes in Washington and London, on the frontline in the Middle East, it continues to cost lives
“When does the incompetence end and the crime begin?” asked an appalled German Chancellor in the First World War when the German army commander said he intended to resume his bloody and doomed assaults on the French fortress city of Verdun.
The same could be said of the disastrous policies of George Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq. At least 3,000 Iraqis and 100 American soldiers are dying every month. The failure of the US and Britain at every level in Iraq is obvious to all. But the White House and Downing Street have lived in a state of permanent denial. On the Downing Street website are listed 10 “Big Issues” affecting the Prime Minister, but Iraq is not one of them.
The picture of what is happening in Iraq put out by Messrs Bush and Blair no longer touches reality at any point. They claim US and British troops are present because Iraqis want them there. But a detailed poll of Iraqi attitudes by WorldPublicOpinion.org, published six weeks ago, shows that 71 per of Iraqis want the withdrawal of US-led forces within a year. No less than 74 per cent of Shia and 91 per cent of Sunni say they want American and British troops out. Only in Kurdistan, where there are few foreign troops, does a majority support the occupation.
Hostility to the American and British troops has a direct and lethal consequence for the soldiers on the ground. The same poll shows that 92 per cent of Sunni and 62 per cent of Shia approve of attacks on US-led forces. This is the real explanation for the strength of the insurgency: it is widely popular.
For the past three-and-a-half years in Iraq, one needed to close both eyes very hard or live in Baghdad’s Green Zone not to see that the occupation was detested by most Iraqis. At places where US Humvees had been blown up or US soldiers killed or wounded there were usually Iraqis dancing for joy.
Supposedly, the centrepiece of American and British policy is to stay “until the job is done” and hand over to Iraqi army and police who will cope with powerful militias like the Mehdi Army. But in police stations in many parts of southern Iraq, photographs pinned to the wall include one of British armoured vehicles erupting in flames, beside a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army.
In the first year of the occupation it could be argued that Bush and Blair were simply incompetent: they did not understand Iraq, were misinformed by Iraqi exiles, or were simply ignorant and arrogant. But they must know that for two-and-a-half years they have controlled only islands of territory in Iraq. “The Americans haven’t even been able to take over Haifa Street [a Sunni insurgent stronghold] though it’s only 400 yards from the Green Zone,” a senior Iraqi security official exclaimed to me last week.
But the refusal to admit, as the British army commander Sir Richard Dannatt pointed out, that the occupation generates resistance in Iraq, means that no new and more successful policy can be devised. It is this that is criminal. And it is all the worse because the rational explanation for Mr Bush’s persistence in bankrupt policies in Iraq is that he has always given priority to domestic politics. Holding power in Washington was more important than real success in Baghdad.
It is easy enough to say that Mr Bush lives in a world of fantasy in Iraq. His aides are notoriously averse to giving him bad news. Officials who do so lose their jobs. But this probably underestimates the man. After 9/11 he successfully presented himself as the security president. For the first time since the 1920s, the Republicans held the presidency and both houses of Congress. The war in Afghanistan was successful at little cost. He thought the same would be true in Iraq.
There was a spurious series of highly publicised turning points in the war, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the return of sovereignty to Iraq and the recapture of Fallujah in 2004, the elections and referendum on the constitution of 2005.
In each case reality was always different. Nobody in Iraq thought Saddam was the leader of the resistance, and his capture had no effect on the insurgency. The return of sovereignty had little meaning: last week the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, admitted that he could not move a company of Iraqi troops without US permission.
Fallujah was very publicly stormed by the US Marines in November 2004, but a few days later the insurgents, in an operation hardly mentioned by the administration, captured the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, seizing arms worth $40m (#21m). The elections and referendum in 2005 deeply divided Iraq’s communities along sectarian and ethnic lines, and led directly to civil war in central Iraq.
The US media was under extreme pressure to report the non-existent good news that the White House accused them of ignoring.
I used to think how absurd it was for me to risk my life by visiting the Green Zone, the entrances to which were among the most bombed targets in Iraq, to see diplomats who claimed that the butchery in Iraq was much exaggerated. But when I asked them if they would like to come and have lunch in my hotel outside the zone, they always threw up their hands in horror and said their security men would never allow it.
The fantasy picture of Iraq purveyed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair is now being exposed. The Potemkin village they constructed to divert attention from what was really happening in Iraq is finally going up in flames.
But it is too late for the Iraqis, Americans and British who died because they were unwitting actors in this fiction, carefully concocted by the White House and Downing Street to show progress where there is frustration, and victory where there is only defeat.
The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn has just been published by Verso