Nowhere to go but out

Iraq one year on - Blair has given up hope that the war be seen as a triumph. The best prospect now

Forget for a moment the legality of the war and the Attorney General's advice. Forget the reasons for the war and the elusive search for weapons of mass destruction. Take Tony Blair on his own terms, on the terms of his recent speech setting out his grand "vision" for intervention. What has happened to the idea of a better Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein? What has happened to the hope that it would serve as a "beacon" for the rest of the Middle East?

Of all the dramatic and terrifying events of the past year, perhaps one stands out. On 19 August 2003, as attention in the UK was focused on the Hutton inquiry, an unsophisticated but huge bomb brought down the facade of the United Nations at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Among the 23 people killed was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN's special envoy to Iraq.

The death of one of the few international statesmen with experience of peacekeeping and reconstruction, a man who had played a leading role in Kosovo, East Timor and other trouble spots, was greeted with consternation around the world. At the Foreign Office, there was a sense that many of the hopes of building a new Iraq had died with Vieira de Mello. The UN withdrew most of its experts from Iraq just at the time when the Americans, having scorned them at the outset, were beginning to appreciate that they needed outside help.

The situation was desperate. The mistakes of the first months of occupation were the logical extension of the road to war - the disregard by the US and Britain for the international community and international law, and the unquestioning and subservient role Blair played to Bush. The Prime Minister subordinated British troops to American command without gaining any substantial say in US policy for postwar Iraq.

According to the British and American officials, relations between the US chief administrator, Paul Bremer, and his British counterpart, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, began icily and have continued icily. The Americans had been flabbergasted at the appointment last summer of the former UK envoy to the UN, seeing him as being ideologically "unreliable" about the war. Greenstock, a diplomat of the old school, did not take to Bremer's brashness, but decided to stay to do what he could to improve things. The Americans did not appreciate what they saw as British briefing about their inability to cope with insurgency.

All the while, progress in restoring utilities and basic living standards to Iraq was pitifully slow. In a little-noticed part of its report on Iraq a month ago, the Commons foreign affairs committee noted: "It is unfortunate and regrettable that the lack of law and order, and interruptions in essential services, resulted in a loss of goodwill among those worst affected."

More than six months after the bombing of the Canal Hotel, the situation remains extremely fragile. Following their capture of Saddam in December, the Americans were confident that the resistance would crumble. The opposite has been the case. The bombings in Karbala and Baghdad on 2 March and the subsequent attacks on the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority appear to signal a new and even more dangerous phase.

On the political front, the first signs of optimism are emerging. On 9 March, Iraq's 25-strong governing council finally signed its interim constitution. After decades of despotism under Saddam, the Transitional Administrative Law is ambitious in its designs to enshrine liberal democracy and multi-ethnic unity. However, the support of the one person who matters, Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, the leading Shia cleric, remains highly conditional. Al-Sistani had baulked at provisions giving the Kurdish and Sunni minorities the potential to veto a permanent constitution. But still it was signed unanimously - no mean feat.

The UN is gradually re-emerging, only because the US needs it again. A team led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who oversaw the transition for postwar Afghanistan, is expected back in Iraq by the end of this month to help organise the handover of power to a provisional government. Brahimi has made clear, however, that he does not want to replace Sergio Vieira de Mello in a permanent role. The Americans are desperate to keep to the deal signed on 15 November 2003 that set out the timetable. They do not want the deadline of 30 June 2004 for the transfer to be postponed. They insist that elections must wait until next year. The provisional constitution stipulates that these must take place by the end of January 2005. Given the many setbacks, both those dates are anything but assured. As Brahimi pointed out in his recent report to the UN, political progress and security are interlinked.

For Bush and Blair, 30 June means everything. They both want out. But first they need to demonstrate "vindication". In a speech during his visit to London last November, the president set out his ideas for what he called worldwide democracy. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution," he said. These might be laudable goals in theory, but as ever the practice intervenes and the result is the usual mess of contradictions and inconsistencies. The US shows no sign of ditching its friends in useful places who happen to have dubious human rights records.

Bush will have a captive audience on home turf at the G8 summit in Georgia in June. A preparatory document for that meeting talks of addressing the "three deficits" in the Middle East: freedom, knowledge and women's empowerment. However, most of its emphasis is on economic liberalism, free trade and rewarding "progressive" governments, or those favourable to the US cause. The new post-9/11 circumstances the Americans talk of have not led to new thinking. Neither the cosy relationships between kleptocratic regimes and the US-driven oil industry nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - two major causes of popular grievance in the region - are mentioned. That is no surprise. Peaceful regime change in the region has not yet happened (in Iran, reformers were excluded from last month's elections), while the road map for Palestine, in which Blair vested so many hopes, has gone nowhere.

In his intriguing but flawed speech on 5 March, Blair seemed to accept that he had relinquished the public's trust over the war. He is prepared now, he said, to be examined on his judgement alone. After seeing their hopes dashed that Hutton would provide closure on the Iraq debate, Blair's more astute advisers prevailed upon him to take the bigger argument to his critics and to cast it forward. Blair framed the question thus: when, and on what basis, will any military intervention be justified in a new world order characterised by unstable and undemocratic regimes and the proliferation of WMDs to non-state actors such as al-Qaeda? He answered it by saying that those who are wise to the dangers will act, and those who are not will not. "The characterisation of the threat is where the difference lies. Here is where I feel so passionately that we are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world in which we live."

Blair is now doing what he had previously chastised his opponents for doing. He is resorting to hypotheses and double negatives. Blair insists that even if Saddam had not threatened Britain, even if he did not have actual WMDs, even if the link between his regime and international terrorism did not materialise, Blair and other leaders "cannot be certain" that any of the above might not have happened at some point.

The Prime Minister called for reform of the UN. Institutions and rules drawn up after the Second World War and based on the old certainties of sovereignty, inviolability of borders, and diplomacy and war between nation states may, as he suggests, be out of date. Blair's problem is that he has foregone the goodwill and authority required to drive such a debate.

Blair is now pinning his hopes of salvaging something from Iraq on the transfer of power. He is far more worried by the 30 June deadline than anything that Lord Butler's weakened investigative committee might come up with. After all, he has survived three inquiries already. He has failed to provide a remotely convincing excuse for the debacle of the intelligence assessments and the missing WMDs, but he is still Prime Minister.

He has long given up hope that Iraq will be seen as a triumphal chapter in the history of his premiership. All he has left is to show that Iraq can achieve a modicum of stability and democracy. For all the evangelistic talk of taking on "fanatics" with their "devilish" plots, Blair will be wary of going to war again.

An updated paperback edition of Blair's Wars by John Kampfner will be published by the Free Press in June