A POINT OF VIEW
By Brian Walden
What next for UK soldiers?
With opposition to its role in Iraq, what is the real position of Britain on the world stage today?
Mr Jeff Stein is a rather important American journalist. He's the national security editor of the Congressional Quarterly magazine.
He may not be a legendary figure like Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, but anybody who's knowledgeable about security and questions senators, representatives and the FBI as part of his job, must know a thing or two.
Mr Stein has indeed learnt a lot from his questioning, but none of it is reassuring.
It isn't that Mr Stein has dug out some frightening lapses in security by complex and rigorous questioning of the people supervising the so-called war on terror. That isn't Mr Stein's game at all.
The sort of questions he asks are: "Have you heard of the terrorist group Hezbollah?" Or "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim?"
You may think that I've muddled up my notes and that these questions weren't put to congressmen and the FBI, but to bus drivers in Kansas City or hairdressers in Detroit.
As American television had been dominated by pictures of the Israeli attack on Hezbollah this was obviously a check on how much the average American remembers of what he, or she, sees on the box.
Holes in knowledge
I'm afraid not. The questions were asked of big fish in Washington D.C. For instance, the chairman of a US congressional intelligence committee is Representative Silvestre Reyes. Mr Reyes didn't know what Hezbollah was.
Silvestre Reyes - one politician in a muddle over the Middle East
When Mr Stein asked him about something I would back a Detroit hairdresser to know, the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee said: "Hezbollah? Hezbollah? Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?"
Perhaps it's not surprising that he's also hopelessly muddled about Sunnis and Shias and thinks Al-Qa'eda is predominantly Shi'ite, whereas it is in fact Sunni.
Just in case you're thinking "that's typical of President Bush's supporters" I must point out that Representative Reyes is a Democrat.
Not that some Republicans are any better. Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, a Republican, didn't know the difference between the Sunni and the Shia. She isn't proud of her ignorance. She said "you know I should know."
Then she tried a guess of sorts. She said "The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice-versa." You may be interested in Congresswoman Davis's responsibilities. She oversees the CIA's recruiting of Islamic spies.
One's instinct is to thank heaven American politicians don't run the show alone, but are instructed in the finer points by the CIA and the FBI.
Just how consoling that is I'm not sure, because Mr Stein also questioned Willie Hulon, who's chief of the FBI's national security branch. Mr Hulon managed to get everything that matters dead wrong.
He also didn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. He thought Shiite Iran and Hezbollah were Sunni.
'First magnitude blunder'
I mention this disturbing religious and political illiteracy not because I want to make the point: "Look at the stupid Americans. Aren't we lucky to be British and cleverer than they are?"
If we're so clever, what are we doing in the middle of the mess in Iraq? I'm not anti-American, nor an opponent of the Anglo-American alliance. I'm not a pacifist either.
But I happen to believe that the war in Iraq was a blunder of the first magnitude.
We're at a new year, and I see no sign that official circles in Washington and London have learnt the lessons that will prevent us making a similar mistake again.
What the Congressional Quarterly reveals isn't that Americans are stupid, but that even at the highest levels they have little understanding of the Middle East, or its predominant religion - Islam. And there are very good reasons for that.
'The occupation has been a disaster' - Walden
Most Americans are almost wholly interested in America and more than they are abroad. I don't reproach them. Perhaps minding your own business is an underrated virtue in the world today.
Americans have to be thoroughly aroused to take foreign parts seriously. And they were.
They successfully fought the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Why should we expect them to be able to re-adjust to fighting a hot war against an opponent President Bush called terror?
Who's the enemy this time around? Well some Sunnis and some Shia - though not all, of course.
How can one tell friend from foe? It's quite complicated and takes a bit of explaining.
But at least it's simple in Iraq isn't it? No it isn't - though most of the insurgents are Sunnis.
So the Shia are on the side of American and British forces? Well a few are in a way, though most aren't because they want us to get out of their country.
Ah at last I've found a bit of solid ground. Some politicians want us to stay, but the overwhelming majority of ordinary Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shia want us to clear off. The sooner the better.
The word on the street is that the British government, deeply disappointed by the repercussions of the conflict, intends to withdraw our forces as rapidly as is seemly.
But the Americans look likely to send in another thirty thousand extra troops.
Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defence when Ronald Reagan was President, puts his finger on the mistake the Bush administration persists in making.
He says it "naively assumes that US military power can still be used to create a stable and unified democracy."
Face unpalatable facts
I spoke of lessons that need to be learned and I think that's more important than dishing out the blame.
Spokesmen for the British government have to do their duty and talk nonsense about Iraq, but we all know in our bones, including the government, that the occupation of Iraq has been a disaster. One that we must never repeat.
There's nothing wrong with British physical courage, but the leading figures in the two major political parties have got to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain's status in the world.
In the first place, we give the embarrassing impression that we think other countries look to us for ethical leadership. They don't.
I'm prepared to believe there was a time when they did, but if there was, it's long gone.
The illusion, that the world stands in awe of our righteousness, is at the bottom of many of our follies.
Our foreign policy is far too assertive and interventionist. It's like that because we're sure we're right and don't intend to waste much time listening to other views, including those of our own public opinion.
We don't have the resources to shoulder the burden of being one of the world's policemen, even if other countries wanted us in that role, which most of them don't.
People know our armed forces are overstretched, but there's something else lacking which is harder to admit.
We don't have the will to engage in a round of foreign conflicts. The old imperialist spirit, whatever its virtues in other years, has gone the way of the Empire and is no more.
There's nothing shameful about that. I don't hear any clamour in France or Germany for young people to be sent abroad on some military mission.
Reluctance to fight
Our leaders pride themselves on being bang up-to-date. They're rather contemptuous of anything traditional or old-fashioned. Yet they're hopelessly out-of-date in their attitude to wars, or if you like, armed conflicts.
People don't want to fight and they aren't easily persuaded to do so for any cause. That's the dominant mood in Europe in the 21st century.
The Islamic world is going through a white hot phase, but we're not.
Why not read the evidence from focus groups and opinion polls? Why not give the voters what they want?
But it will come to that in the end. Politicians know only too well what loses votes. So who wants to go into the next general election as the candidate who might get involved in another Middle Eastern war?
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