Two days ago, Sir Menzies Campbell told Parliament that we should begin a phased withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. According to Ming, we should start in May, and they should all be home by October.
The press coverage has been impressive. Lib Dem announcements, including the timetable for withdrawal, were spaced throughout the day – first the Today Programme, then PMQs, then the Parliamentary debate on the Middle East. The clever staggering of stories meant that the party had continuous coverage throughout the day. After the publicity drought we’ve been suffering of late, this is very refreshing.
But it’s also proving quite controversial amongst the Liberal Democrat grassroots. Although the party spoke with one voice against the invasion of Iraq, we’ve struggled to find a consistent line in the aftermath. It’s clear that the statebuilding operation in Iraq was poorly planned and abysmally executed, but the Lib Dems didn’t do enough to offer an alternative programme. It’s fully understandable; we found the entire project so distasteful that even once it was inevitable, we were still campaigning against it, instead of enlightening the Government on how to make it less disastrous.
The controversy now stems from the tension between two different streams of Lib Dem opinion: those who believe we have a duty to the Iraqi people, so we should stay, and those who believe our presence can do no good, and we should withdraw. Ironically, Chris Huhne used this withdrawal policy prominently in his leadership pitch, as a way of differentiating himself from Ming Campbell’s more cautious line. There is a clear tension, and Lib Dem bloggers have written eloquently and passionately on both sides of the argument.
In an insightful article a couple of weeks ago, my favourite fluffy elephant, Millennium Dome, writes: “To abandon the people of Iraq to get on with their civil war would be cruel and heartless.” On the other hand, Paul Walter writes a well-informed piece in defence of Ming, arguing that after four years, it’s now far too late for us to solve Iraq’s problems.
Paddy Ashdown weighed into the argument yesterday, with a superb comment in the Independent. He talks in detail about the mistakes made in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s defeat. He argues that the Coalition woefully misunderestimated the resources, troops, and aid necessary to build a democratic state out of the ruins of Ba’athism. As a military man, and from his experience of international intervention, he suggest a correct programme for statebuilding: imposing law and order; instituting economic reform; gaining the support and co-operation of key players in the region; and only then attempting to set up democratic structures.
The key paragraph, and the one that has caused the most controversy in Lib Dem spheres, is this one:
First, we forget that, although you can successfully fight modern high-tech wars in weeks, statebuilding takes decades. Afghanistan I think, is probably a 30-year project. When our politicians plunge us into these interventions they nearly always say: ‘Troops home by Christmas’, metaphorically speaking. We know this is driven by the electoral cycle, but the fact is you must be prepared to commit over a long period probably as much or more resources as you committed during the war. In the days and weeks after the conflict probably more troops are necessary than were needed during it; Iraq is a classic example of this.
This appears to set him on a direct collision course with Sir Ming’s policy of a phased withdrawal. Iain Dale interprets Paddy’s words as “a direct dig” at the current leadership’s stance. I’m not convinced this is the right interpretation. Paddy’s article refers to the mistakes made by the Coalition forces in assuming that they could create a democratic state quickly and easily. His criticism of the “troops home by Christmas” attitude is a rebuke against Bush’s attempt to reconstruct Iraq on the cheap and without a plan, rather than an intended dig at Ming’s timetable for withdrawal. It’s consistent to agree with Paddy that the US programme for the aftermath should have been very different, and also to agree with Ming that it’s too late now to implement a better one.
However, Paddy’s article must shine a light of hope for those who fear it may be too late for us to help. His suggested roadmap to a stable Iraq is workable, and it seems that there is still a small window of opportunity to put it into practice. A push for law and order, an attempt to engage Iran and Syria in the reconstruction, and a serious attempt to kick-start the Iraqi economy could yet dig Iraq out of the mess it’s in. Committing more troops and more resources may be unpopular and expensive, but if we start before it’s too late, and go in with a proper plan this time, we may just turn things around – before a retreat becomes the only option.