Magazine article The Spectator

'If Brown Pulls a Stunt over Iraq, Sarkozy's Just a Phone Call Away'

Magazine article The Spectator

'If Brown Pulls a Stunt over Iraq, Sarkozy's Just a Phone Call Away'

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown could administer the coup de grâce to George W. Bush's presidency.

If, following the expected visits to Iraq and Washington in the first weeks of his premiership, Brown were to announce that British forces would be pulled out of Iraq by March 2008, then the already fragile support for the war in the US Congress would finally snap. Brown's 100 days would be off to the blockbuster start that his acolytes have long dreamed of.

Seventy-two per cent of the American public disapprove of Bush's handling of the war and 76 per cent believe that the 'surge' is not improving matters. Even normally loyal Republicans are making clear that their patience is limited. A rapid British withdrawal would therefore make the Bush administration's position politically untenable. One senior Republican congressman warns, 'If Britain pulls out, it's game over.' In these circumstances, the update on the progress of the surge that the new US commander, General Petraeus, is due to deliver in September would become largely academic. Bush would not just be a lame duck; he would be a paralysed president, with Congress refusing to fund the war except on its terms.

A declaration of an intention to quit by Brown -- a Love Actually moment on steroids -- would create a clean break with what the public regard as the biggest error of the Blair era. It would prove he was more Rottweiler than poodle, and instantly make him a hero to the growing majority on both sides of the Atlantic who see the effort in Iraq as futile; a feeling that is only bolstered by the Iraqi police's apparent collusion in the kidnapping of British citizens there. Brown would have achieved what all the huffing and puffing of the Democratic presidential contenders has not achieved: he would have ended the war. If a Democrat were to take the White House, Brown would be the venerated elder statesman.

And Brown's recent comments do indeed hint at something dramatic coming.

Naturally, he has to trot out the formula that he takes 'collective responsibility' for the original decision to go to war, but his chum and former press secretary Charlie Whelan recently spun the line that none of the Chancellor's friends believes that he supported the invasion. In his new book Courage: Eight Portraits, Brown expresses admiration for Bobby Kennedy's 'courage' in breaking with Lyndon Baines Johnson, and this is being seen in some quarters as a possible prelude to a dramatic shift in Middle East policy. His much-used line that 'I'm going to go out to Iraq, look at the situation on the ground and see what is happening' implies that he is looking for an excuse to execute an about-turn on the war. Brown's modus operandi, as he has shown over the NHS, the euro and pensions is to make a private decision, launch a review and then present his policy as a response.

And yet . . . the likelihood is still that Brown will not perform a violent about-turn.

He was, after all, far more publicly supportive of action in Iraq than in Kosovo, and Robin Cook's diaries show that he lent Blair crucial support in Cabinet in the run-up to the war. As Cook records, at the Cabinet meeting five days before the final vote in Parliament on Iraq, 'Gordon launched a long and passionate statement of support for Tony's strategy.' The 'yes' he laconically uttered during the 2005 campaign when asked if he agreed with the way Blair handled Iraq was as accurate as it was terse; Brown was a supporter of the war in both word and deed.

Above all, though, he is an instinctively cautious politician; his decision to give the Bank of England independence is so memorable precisely because it stands out as an act of daring in Brown's record. Pulling troops out of Iraq would make him responsible for what happened next; and withdrawal by the Coalition would almost certainly be followed by genocidal violence. It would in all likelihood spark a regional war, with the Saudis moving in to protect their Sunni co-religionists from Iranian-backed Shiite death squads, and the Turks trying to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. …

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