The idea that Britain might need an exit strategy from its commitment to the Bush administration over Iraq may seem fanciful in this week of all weeks when Tony Blairs government despatched as large a proportion of its armed forces to the war as Margaret Thatcher did in November 1990, on the eve of the last Gulf war.
Furthermore, the linkage between Downing Street and the White House is extraordinarily close, with Blair meeting George W. Bush next week, immediately after the UN inspectors, UNMOVIC report to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on 27 January.
However, the British governments strategy may be rather more complex than it looks. There is certainly some evidence that the Prime Minister sees his role as cautioning a rampant Bush administration. Yet the sheer scale of the military commitments made by Britain mean that as long as the US seeks regime termination whatever the weapons inspectors find it will be difficult for the UK to disengage.
This could be particularly troubling if there are any divisions within the Security Council. There are strong indications that both the French and the Germans (who chair the Council next month) are not convinced of the case for a new resolution; recent indications are that the German government is especially reluctant. Realpolitik may dictate an ultimate softening of their views, but it is worth considering the British governments position if Washington goes to war with no further UN approval.
The danger of escalation
The prospect of regime termination in Iraq raises deeply problematic issues for the UK for a number of substantial reasons, both international and domestic. So much so that there may be a time, within weeks, when the need for an exit strategy is accepted.
For one thing, the war is likely to cost civilian casualties that will number many thousands. Post-conflict humanitarian consequences are expected to be massive, given that 14 million Iraqis currently require food aid and the health infrastructure is very much weaker than in 1991. The UN anticipates that several million people, including two million children, will require emergency feeding in the event of conflict, which gives some indication of the scale of the humanitarian crisis.
If we assume a limited Iraqi capability to use chemical and biological weapons (CBW), then moves to terminate the regime are bound to mean that the risk of CBW use becomes likely. This could greatly increase civilian and military casualties, complicate the war and have sustained regional implications, especially if the Iraqi regime succeeds in initiating some kind of attack on Israel.
This raises a further issue. Recent months have seen the delivery of large numbers of longer-range Katyusha rockets to militias in southern Lebanon. They are reported to be capable of reaching the Israeli city of Haifa, so there could be a sudden opening of a new front of conflict, just as the firing of Scud missiles at Israel on the second day of the 1991 Gulf war caused such a shock.
In relation to Iraq itself, there seems to be an assumption that the regime is so weak, and with such minimal elite forces, that a war will be rapid and hugely one-sided. This may be so, except for urban warfare and the use of CBW, but the regime clearly believes that the primary American motive for the war is control of oil resources, therefore it would be immensely foolish not to expect an appropriate Iraqi response.
This may take two forms, one probable and one possible. The first is the wholesale firing of the major oil fields, especially those around Basra. Most are artesian wells (oil surfacing under natural pressure) and would set a conflagration similar to that in Kuwait, only at the start rather than the end of a war. Raging oil fires would hugely complicate targeting, troop movements and the other aspects of the developing war. Related to this would be attempts, where possible, at long-term and irreversible sabotage of the oil fields themselves.
The second action would be difficult but not impossible destruction of oil facilities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This is assumed to be beyond the capability of Iraqi paramilitaries, yet this weeks murder of another American close to a secure military camp in Kuwait City is a salutary reminder of the already precarious security situation there.
The anti-war build-up
Tony Blair also has to contend with the increasingly bitter opposition to the war developing in Britain, and its dangerous side effect, the impact on community relations. This is causing concern among many community workers and leaders and committed senior police officers in a number of Britains major cities. An ominous aspect of this is the manner in which the British National Party (BNP) and other far-right political groups are campaigning vigorously to increase the antagonism to Islamic communities.
There are also real concerns within government, rarely expressed in public, about the consequences of an expensive conflict for the UK economy not least for Labours own plans which envisage rising public expenditure on health and education as tax revenues fall due to poorer than expected economic growth.
These issues combine with some of the likely longer-term consequences of British involvement in a war with Iraq. Among them is an undoubted increase in the deep and bitter anti-American and anti-British mood now taking hold in the region as a whole. There will follow from this considerable immediate and long-term benefit to al-Qaida and its associates, coupled with increased support in Islamic communities overseas.
It would also be utterly naïve to assume that the US will erect a client regime in Baghdad and remove its forces as soon as (or rather if) stability ensues. That is not the name of the game. Instead, we can expect to see the rapid establishment of several permanent US military bases in strategic locations throughout Iraq, much as is happening in Central Asia and has already happened in former Yugoslavia. (See the Wall Street Journal story on 3 January 2003 about Camp Bondsteel, the huge permanent base built in Kosovo which now houses 7,000 troops.)
One of the key regional impacts of such a development will be a near paranoia in Tehran and a veritable rush to develop deterrent forces such as CBW, setting us up for the next stage in the war against the axis of evil. In other words the aftermath of regime change could be crucial in deciding the future, and perhaps a defining measure of this will be whether the US installs itself as a permanent military presence in Iraq.
What chance of avoiding war?
In such a combination of circumstances, an exit strategy for the UK might quickly come to be considered to put it at its mildest rather important.
In that case, then the first point to make is that primary US requirements are for
- regional control of Gulf oil;
- regime termination before the 2004 Presidential election;
- as a secondary aim, control of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction developments.
The second and third of these may just be negotiable, but the first must ultimately be subject to longer-term consensus. At least because it is not a stated US aim, there is less loss of face if this is not achieved as a part of the process of war avoidance.
The primary Iraqi regime requirement is for regime survival external exile is not viable. However, there is just a possibility that internal leadership exile might be negotiable and might then facilitate acceptable regime change. This in turn could also make possible effective UNMOVIC engagement, regime formation under UN (not US) auspices and the consequent return of a large proportion of the highly-educated Iraqi diaspora.
In the event that Washington proceeds towards regime termination in early February by military means, Britain could choose to intervene with support for an EU initiative to bring together high-level Iraqi, US, EU, Russian and regional officials (at cabinet rank) to investigate alternatives including internal Iraqi leadership exile and the establishment of a UN-facilitated process of regime change.
Such an EU initiative, which is now likely in any case, would not make any impact in Washington unless the UK supported it. If Britain did so and made it clear that military assistance was not otherwise available, then US acceptance might be forthcoming.
If, on the contrary, the US persisted with forced regime change in the face of a seriously mediated EU negotiating process, then it would be relatively easy for the British to withdraw support for US unilateral action. That would no doubt precipitate a crisis in AngloAmerican relations but, though grave, it might still be on a far smaller scale than the EuroAmerican crisis developing alongside.
A concerted diplomatic and political effort of this kind might just even at this late stage be sufficient, in combination with the opposition to war now building in the United States, to convince Bushs advisers that re-election in 2004 might best be served by avoiding a war in 2003.