The failure to rebuild Iraq

It was Tony Blair who brought history into it. That was in a speech to the US Congress in July 2003, when he declared that he was "confident history will forgive" those who, a couple of months earlier, had destroyed the "threat" from Saddam Hussein. Although the Prime Minister set no deadline for this forgiveness (was he thinking of one year, five years, 50 years?) and although he would now clearly prefer us to stop thinking about Iraq altogether, he is in no position to complain if history offers up an occasional interim verdict.

The bloodshed we know about, though from sheer force of repetition it tends to retreat down the bulletins and into the remoter corners of the papers. The deaths of seven police recruits, blown to bits in a bus near Baghdad, for example, rated barely a passing mention in the past week. No, there is no disguising the terrible failure of those who displaced Saddam Hussein to bring peace and security to his country, and it will be an unusual historian who finds it possible to overlook it. The international repercussions, too, are evident. The July carnage in London is just one aspect of the appalling legacy of the invasion, albeit the most immediate to most of us. Blair has never looked more foolish than when he denied there was a connection, and it is easy to picture future students of history rubbing their eyes in disbelief as they read that he did so.

Far less familiar to us is the state of the reconstruction of Iraq - without doubt an important measure of success or failure - but the past few days have shed some light on this area. Oil is the heart of it; it is no exaggeration to say that in the Iraqi economy nothing else really matters. It was clear in 2003 that if output could be increased to reasonable levels, money would flow in and a virtuous circle of prosperity could be inaugurated. Last month, however, Iraq exported only 1.3 million barrels per day on average, little more than half the levels achieved in the final days of Saddam Hussein. On these terms the economic circle in prospect must be vicious, rather than virtuous. Violence is the primary cause, but whatever the explanations this must go down as a dreadful failure on the part of those who in 2003 covered their embarrassment at the absence of weapons of mass destruction by promising a vibrant, rebuilt economy for Iraq.

And now the Bush administration lets slip, in sideways fashion, that when the pot of dollars allocated for reconstruction is empty, no more will be on offer. The original fund, at $18.4bn, was large (though it is dwarfed by the cost of the destructive side of the US involvement), but it has been whittled down to pay for security, and cash earmarked for projects continues to go astray in astonishing quantities. With just one-fifth remaining, Washington tells us it never planned a long-term involvement in the Iraqi economy and that it is up to others to complete the work.

In the vituperative lexicon of the American right, talk of withdrawal from Iraq is always recast as "cutting and running", yet it would be hard to find a more vivid example of cutting and running than this. It amounts to a budgetary withdrawal. Who will step in to make up the shortfall? No one. Ask yourself, would you invest in Iraq? Like the security outlook, the prospects for effective reconstruction are shaky in the extreme. History must be curling its lip.

Phillip Whitehead, 1937-2005

A crusading journalist and maker of current affairs documentaries, an MP with a deep commitment to tackling the most challenging social problems, and a hardworking MEP dedicated to keeping Britain (and the Labour Party) in Europe, Phillip Whitehead, who died on New Year's Eve at the age of 68, has been warmly remembered in the obituary pages of recent days. His crowded curriculum vitae also included a long and important association with this magazine, including five years as chairman of the New Statesman and Nation Publishing Company.

The connection grew organically - he contributed articles, then he attended editorial meetings, then he joined the board and, in December 1985, became chairman. He remained in that post until September 1990 and afterwards served for several years as a trustee.

The later 1980s, as some readers will recall, were difficult and occasionally turbulent times for the New Statesman (as they were for the Labour Party and for the left as a whole) and it is no surprise that the recollections of those involved can be hard to reconcile. One former editor who served under him, for example, describes Whitehead as a plain-dealing, fair-minded chairman, while another remembers him as a manipulative one.

On a couple of points, however, there is impressive agreement. Busy as he was (and his Who's Who entry is long), Phillip Whitehead took the affairs of the New Statesman very much to heart and dedicated himself to keeping it alive in years when it sometimes seemed it might fail. And although he was deeply loyal to the Labour Party and believed in essence that the magazine's mission was to serve Labour's interest, he did not impose those views on editors but left them free to publish what they wished. Those are virtues in a chairman for which any magazine, or any newspaper, would have reason to be grateful.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The death of freedom