By James Blitz, the FT’s defence and diplomatic editor
Britain’s official inquiry into the Iraq war begins today, amid much speculation that it will be a “whitewash”. One of the main reasons for this is that Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman, is the very model of a British civil servant and a man who looks unlikely to wield the knife when it comes to an inquiry of this sort. Besides, argue the critics, the other members of the inquiry team have all been selected by Downing Street, suggesting to some that they are not truly independent and likely to pull their punches.
I’m not so sure about this. Having covered the four previous inquiries into the Iraq war, I’d beware of making any prediction on the outcome of this one. One thing I do know: the media has misjudged what the eventual outcome of all the previous Iraq inquiries would be and I expect will do the same again this time.
Take the 2003-04 Hutton inquiry into the death of weapons scientist Dr David Kelly. There was a near universal assumption in the British media when the inquiry began in the autumn of 2003 that it would destroy Tony Blair. In fact, Hutton did the exact opposite. His inquiry almost completely exonerated Blair over the handling of the Kelly affair but instead found heavily against the BBC over aspects of its reporting - leading to the dismissal of the two leading figures in the BBC. Read more
I thought Obama’s speech outlining his plan for withdrawal from Iraq was extremely well-judged. The political task was as tricky as it gets. He had to stand in front of the cream of the American military and announce that a war that he had always opposed – but that they had fought – is now coming to a close.
As usual, the president got the tone just right. He paid a genuine and sincere tribute to military heroism. He stressed what has actually been achieved in Iraq. But he did not renounce his opposition to the war – it was the implict thread running through the speech. By the end of Obama’s address, the marines were cheering him to the rafters – a promise to increase their pay might have helped improve their mood. Read more
I think that was a draw.
But watching these Obama-McCain debates, I keep find myself having to make two judgements. First, what do I personally think of what the candidates are saying? And second, what do I think the voters might think?
On the substance, I think the only new thing that we learned was McCain’s proposal that the US government step in and buy all bad home loans and renegotiate them on more favourable conditions. This is such a large proposal with such mind-boggling implications that I find it difficult to get my head around it, at this early hour of the morning. But a couple of questions strike me, initially. First, how is this compatible with his proposal to freeze government spending? Second, what if the value of somebody’s house has fallen – which would be true for almost all homeowners in the US – but their mortgage is not ruinous enough to qualify for this government programme? Wouldn’t somebody like that be fairly irritated to see the government riding to the rescue of neighbours – who had made particularly reckless financial decisions?
Still, at this juncture, the key question is not whether McCain’s proposal makes sense – but whether it appeals to voters? Read more
The atmosphere was gloomy in Beijing this week – literally and metaphorically. When they weren’t worrying about poisoned baby milk (which is the scandal of the day), Beijing residents were complaining about the end of the traffic restrictions that were introduced just before the Olympics.
The city authorities kept the restrictions in force, even after the athletes departed. The rule was that only half the city’s cars could take to the roads on any single day – odd-numbered plates on one day, even-numbered the other. The effect was apparently dramatic. As one expat enthused to me – “You could breathe the air, you could see the mountains and you could hop into a taxi and get across the city in twenty minutes.” There was some official discussion about whether to keep the traffic restrictions in perpetuity. But the car-owning lobby won out.
And last Sunday it was back to traffic as normal. The locals I spoke to in Beijing were unanimous that they could feel the deterioration in the air quality immediately. Read more
I appear to have endorsed Barack Obama by accident. Brad DeLong – well-known blogger and economist – has a note on his weblog headlined – “Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times endorses Barack Obama”. And WCM asked yesterday – “Gideon’s endorsement of Obama for (global) Commander-in-Chief. Premature? Politically motivated? Deserved? ”
Oddly, despite the headline on my column – “Obama for commander-in-chief” – I wasn’t consciously sitting down to write an endorsement column. What I was aiming to do was to respond to the polls that show that McCain is much more trusted as future commander-in-chief. But c-in-c is not the only role performed by the president.
There are a few subjects on which I prefer McCain. Trade is the most obvious. I also think he has taken sound positions on immigration and on campaign-finance reform. And I accept that McCain was courageous to take an unpopular position on the surge – and that he has been largely vindicated. (Although he was wrong to back the war in the first place.) Read more
I was re-viewing the opening episode of “The World at War” (as one does) – and was struck by the footage of Hitler looking cheerful, surrounded by yapping German shepherd dogs. The great dictator was a dog lover, and had a pet Alsatian called Blondi.
Churchill, by contrast, was a cat man. Read more
I’m afraid that newspaper columnists are incorrigible show-offs. As a species, we are constantly trying to draw attention to ourselves. So I have to hand it to my colleague, George Monbiot, of The Guardian. I thought I might attract a little attention by writing a scathing review of John Bolton’s book. It never occurred to me to actually try and arrest the guy. (Yes, I know that’s a split infinitive – I feel reckless today.)
But this is what George has done at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. Admittedly, it was a fairly ineffectual attempt at a citizens’s arrest. But the underlying issue is interesting. Monbiot claims to be in possession of a fat dossier on Bolton – and argues that the former UN ambassador is a war criminal. But I’m with Foreign Policy magazine when it argues that the grounds for arresting Bolton under international law are flimsy, at best. I don’t think that being in a possession of an offensive moustache is enough to take you to the Hague.
I find both Bolton and Monbiot puzzling in different ways. Why – for example – does Bolton spend so much time in Britain, when he professes to despise the place? It can’t be the money – the speaker fees are much fatter on the other side of the Atlantic.
As for Monbiot – the question that interests me is, is he a stunt man and publicity-seeking shyster or a sincere person, who is genuinely trying to improve the world? I fear that the answer is the latter. Read more
With the oil price heading upwards and President George W. Bush heading for Saudi Arabia, as part of a Middle Eastern tour, it is time to accept the truth. The pursuit of oil is fundamental to US foreign policy. Read more
It is difficult not to feel sorry for Barack Obama. The whole Jeremiah Wright thing is a complete nightmare. I doubt that Obama’s late-in-the-day repudiation of his spiritual mentor of 20 years is going to do the trick. Wright will be an issue for the rest of the campaign.
And so he should be. Obama has responded to Hillary Clinton’s assertion that she is the candidate of “experience”, by talking about his superior judgement. But what does it say about his judgement that he chose Reverend Wright as his pastor? Read more
What is the cure for anti-Americanism in Europe? I have always thought that there is a one-word answer to that question – China.
And so it has come to pass. The FT-Harris poll released this week shows that a narrow majority of Europeans now regard China as the biggest threat to global stability – ahead of the United States. Of course, these kind of polls always reflect recent events. So the news out of Tibet – and, to a lesser extent, Darfur – will have hurt China’s image. Meanwhile the decline in coverage of the Iraq war – and the fact that the Bush administration is winding down – will help the US. Read more
Various people have been in touch with me – by e-mail and on the blog – to ask what I thought of Obama’s speech on race and the Wright controversy? Wasn’t it a great speech, and doesn’t it prove that I was wrong to dismiss Obama as a master of empty rhetoric?
Difficult. Yes, it was a great speech. And perhaps I should just leave it at that. Any attempt at further explanation threatens to leave me sounding like one of those politicians, saying – “I do not for a moment withdraw any of my previous statements on this matter. However, in the light of recent events, I would like to issue some further remarks, expanding upon my previous statements and adding some important context.”
Well, I do not for a moment…etc, etc. But Obama’s race speech was completely different from his standard stump/victory speech - because of the context in which it was delivered. In his regular campaign appearances, Obama’s goal is simply to pump up the crowd with vague and vacuous applause lines. He is a master at producing euphoria. At one campaign stop, he was even cheered to the rafters simply for blowing his nose. Read more
If the furore over the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran hadn’t intervened, the US delegation to the IISS security conference in Bahrain last weekend would have spent the time boasting about progress in Iraq. In 2006, the Americans sent a relatively low-level delegation to Bahrain. This time they were out in force. The delegation was led by Robert Gates, the defence secretary and included William Fallon, the admiral in charge of Centcom – which runs the US military presence in the Middle East. Also at the conference was Colonel HR McMaster – the American officer who pioneered the "clear and hold" tactics that became the model for the US "surge" in Iraq.
As it was, Gates did spend a fair amount of time talking about the progress that had been made in Iraq. But he was cautious about making sweeping claims that things have taken a decisive turn for the better. Everybody remembers the hubris of "mission accomplished". And the Americans are well aware of the fragility of security gains, without real political progress to back it up.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the impromptu Iraq discussion. I was pleased to see that the contributors span the ideological spectrum from "Bush is a war criminal" to "secure the oil and let the hopeless Iraqis slug it out" (I paraphrase obviously). Since much of the blogosphere seems to be chopped up into the ideological equivalent of gated communities, it’s good to see such a range of opinions.
As for myself, I think the discussion helped clarify my thinking a bit – although I don’t think I’ve yet found "the solution". Rather than comment on each and every posting, I thought it might be useful to react to groups of ideas that cropped up.
First – Belgium. I’m fond of the place myself, since I used to live there. And a couple of correspondents seem to regard it as a possible model for Iraq – as does Volker Perthes, whose article I linked to. I’m not convinced however. The temptations of federalism or even partition are obvious – and that may be where we end up eventually. But any attempt to force the situation might involve further mass movements of people and killings – which looked more like the partition of India and Pakistan than the creation of Belgium (which I seem to remember is the only revolution ever to have started in an opera house.) Also partition might invite outside intervention and therefore a wider war. Would Turkey tolerate an independent Kurdistan? How would the Saudis feel about an Iranian-linked Shiastan in the south?
I have written a lot about Iraq in the FT. But readers of my column might have noticed that – while not slow to dish out criticism – I have usually dodged the big question: so what would you do?
There is a simple reason for this evasiveness. I don’t know really know what I would do. Like most people, I am better at defining the question than providing the answer. So once again, I would like to turn to the readers of this blog for ideas and suggestions.
‘‘My fellow Americans, our troops in Iraq have performed heroically and have done everything that has been asked of them. Under my presidency I will seek to bring our brave men and women home. But there will be no precipitate withdrawal from Iraq. We will secure our vital national interests.
“Our nation faces awesome challenges in Iraq and in the struggle against global jihadism. But I take inspiration from the ‘greatest generation’, which won the second world war, and from the statesmen who led us to victory in the cold war – men like George C. Marshall and Harry Truman. Read more
I thought President Bush did a good job in his television address on Iraq last night (view video, transcript). He must have done. For a couple of minutes, I was almost convinced.
As expected, Bush made the case that the “surge” has worked. His speech was full of encouraging little anecdotes. He set out the moral and strategic case for persevering in Iraq with conviction. And he tried to build some sort of bipartisan consensus, by holding out the hope that the troop withdrawals he announced are just the beginning.
But – in the end – it doesn’t convince for two main reasons.
I am sitting in a hotel room in Washington. The television is on in the background, because I’m hoping to catch more Congressional testimony from General David Petraeus. But even the mainstream news channels seem to be losing interest. They keep cutting away to other stuff – commemoration services for 9/11, Osama’s new video. All the news channels carried Petraeus live yesterday, when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs committees. Today, he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which should be even more interesting – since his inquisitors include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But Petraeus fatigue has set in already.
It’s been a while since I watched hours of Congresssional testimony at a stretch. Yesterday was interesting, partly because it reminded me of the massive self-importance of Congress – neither Petraeus or Crocker got to say anything for almost an hour, while the committee members droned away. Their attitude seemed to be – "I’m really glad you’ve come all the way from Iraq, because there are a few things I’d like to get off my chest."
Petraeus says that the surge is working, which infuriates the anti-war crowd. But the people at Moveon.org scored an own goal, even before the general appeared before Congress, by publishing a full-page ad in the New York Times calling him "General Betray Us". This was so over-the-top that it was a gift to the Republicans.
Mind you, sotto voce, even some senior Republicans are not totally convinced by the general.
The symbolism of getting General David Petraeus to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the anniversary of 9/11 appealed to the White House. It should not have. It is crass. General Petraeus’s struggle to salvage the Iraq war merely underlines the fact that invading Iraq was a crazy way to respond to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Six years after 9/11, the US needs to re-think. It is now clear that Iraq was the biggest blunder of the Bush years. It is also becoming evident that counter-terrorism should no longer be the centrepiece of American foreign policy. As the official 9/11 commission demonstrated, Saddam Hussein played no role in the terrorist attacks. He also had no nuclear weapons and no significant relationship with al-Qaeda. Read more
I realise this sounds egomaniacal, but I can’t help reading President Bush’s recent speech to American veterans as a belated reply to a column that I wrote last November. The FT’s dreaded subscription barrier may prevent you reading the whole thing, so let me summarise the basic argument:
I wrote that the parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars were becoming increasingly eerie. In both cases, the US went on a war for reasons that were subsequently discredited. In both cases, the administration expressed high hopes about the export of democracy – but disillusionment set in rapidly. As casualties mounted (they were much higher in Vietnam), support for the war in the US drained away.
The big question is whether the two wars will end in the same way? Will it be helicopters off the roof at the American Embassy in Baghdad in a couple of years time? And if so, what will the consequences be for America and the region?
President Bush is now engaged in a two-fronts war over Iraq. There is the battle in Iraq itself, and then there is the political battle back in Washington. To win the struggle in Washington, he needs to convince American politicians and the public that there is hope in Iraq. And that – in a modest and halting way – is what the interim report issued today does. It claims that progress has been made and pleads for more time.
The trouble is, how much time is enough? In a dangerous moment of candour earlier this week, General David Petraeus – the US commander in Iraq – told the BBC that typical counter-insurgenices can take decades to succeed. He cited the British experience in Northern Ireland, which actually took more than 30 years – and ended with a political settlement.
The trouble is that Iraq is considerably more daunting than Northern Ireland. The Americans have lost 3,600 troops, which is far more men than Britain ever lost in Ulster. Nor does there seem to be any prospect of reaching a political deal with the hard core of the insurgency – al-Qaeda.