Iraq Broke Blair, Could It Now Break Brown?
Gordon Brown has been enjoying high popularity in the polls since he became Prime Minister, and that's not particularly surprising as the Nation is still breathing an elongated sigh of relief at the departure of Blair. Despite his policies not being vastly different to Blair's, there was enough difference in style to convince many people that things were looking up. The lack of obvious sycophancy when he met Bush earlier this summer, and his competent handling of the recent floods and the foot and mouth crisis earned him a ten point lead over the Tories (helped, of course, by the Tories' own ineptitude).
...the decision on when British troops would be pulled out of Basra - and security handed to their Iraqi counterparts - would be based purely on the advice of British military commanders on the ground.
British military commanders knew exactly what to do and their advice to Brown was unequivocal:
Senior military commanders have told the Government that Britain can achieve "nothing more" in south-east Iraq, and that the 5,500 British troops still deployed there should move towards withdrawal without further delay.
Indeed, it seemed for a while that things were moving in the right direction with news that the British forces are abandoning the indefensible position they were holding at one of Saddam's palaces and making a bee-line for the airport where they will for the most part be confined to barracks, much to the annoyance of some Americans (that last link is satire via). But hunkering down at the airport isn't the full withdrawal recommended by military officers and, well, just about everyone else. Now Brown has come out and said that there will be no timetable for withdrawal.
"I believe that we continue to have clear obligations to discharge," the Prime Minister said. "We are there at the express invitation of the Iraqi government, implementing a UN mandate renewed last November.
"We, together with the rest of the international community, have undertaken to support the country's political and economic development through the UN-led International Compact for Iraq. These are commitments it is not in our interests simply to abandon."
Just what the British soldiers can achieve from the relative safety of the airport that they couldn't achieve when they patrolled the rest of Basra isn't explained, but I imagine it has more to do with providing a fig leaf of political cover for Bush than actually improving the situation in the province. Perhaps Brown is still clinging to the hope that things might improve enough by themselves so that the inevitable withdrawal, when it happens, won't look like the predicted rout that the move to the airport is starting to look like with Muqtada al-Sadr already declaring a victory - in other words, it's about pride. Sadr has already said that he is prepared to co-operate with any possible UN force that replaces the departing British and American forces. I guess it wouldn't reflect very well on Britain and America if they left and the violence subsided.
While Brown is unlikely to to be blamed for the war as much as Blair is, he is the one in power now and he is the one presiding over a continuing disaster that is only going to get worse as Iran moves further up Bush's agenda. Labour's new-found popularity is already taking some knocks with Brown's refusal to hold a referendum over the EU constitution/treaty which might make the trade unions and the Tories unlikely bedfellows. And Brown is also in trouble over the under funding of the military while expecting it to fight two wars, both of which are going badly. The more bad news that comes from the region, the more Brown is going to be held responsible, and doing the old Blair trick of stifling the debate isn't going to help him.