The war that will never be won

There is no such thing as a humanitarian intervention: if you invade a country you will always kill

Cobra II: the inside story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq
Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor Atlantic Books, 603pp, £25
ISBN 1843543524
Occupational Hazards: my time governing in Iraq
Rory Stewart Picador, 320pp, £17.99
ISBN 0330440497
What We Owe Iraq: war and the ethics of nation building
Noah Feldman Princeton University Press, 160pp, £9.95
ISBN 0691121796

It is 50 years almost to the day since President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and triggered one of the greatest fiascos of British foreign policy in the past half-century. Anthony Eden, the then prime minister, told us that Nasser was as bad as Hitler. Our vital interests were threatened, he said. Even in the early days, even on the basis of the information available to the general public, it was evident that the government had no serious case: that it was, indeed, lying. There were huge demonstrations on the streets of London. But Eden accused his opponents of appeasement, and deliberately inflamed public opinion with hints of secret intelligence he could not reveal. In the end, with the support of parliament, he sent our troops into a successful war without the remotest idea of how he would extricate them and how he would deal with the aftermath.

So far, so very similar. But there is one essential difference. Eden's adventure was nipped in the bud by the Americans, who rapidly forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal. The Arabs chalked up yet another black mark against us. Nasser quickly got the canal going again. The threat to British interests evaporated. Tony Blair, on the other hand, chose to tag along behind the Americans, to help them overthrow the dictator, destroy his unpleasant state and impose democracy. There was no early withdrawal. The killing escalated. The threat to British interests increased. Apologists for the war - there are still some - argue that at least Iraqis are now dying at a lower daily rate than under Saddam Hussein. Even if true, it is a macabre calculus. One can imagine what the Iraqis think of it.

Three new books chart these sad events. Cobra II: the inside story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, describes in fascinating - indeed, exhausting - detail how the campaign unfolded. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, correctly believed that a slimmed-down American force could win a second war in Iraq with less aerial bombardment and far fewer men than had fought the Gulf war in 1991. Despite the profusion of gadgets - smart bombs, satellite navigation, computer screens everywhere - the fog and friction of war confused the battle, just as it did when Clausewitz wrote about war nearly 200 years ago. But the conventional war was, not surprisingly, won with little difficulty.

Unfortunately it was the wrong war. Saddam was not stupid. He knew his regular forces could not stand up to the Americans. So, unnoticed by American intelligence, he set up a force of fedayeen instead: men armed with simple infantry weapons, fighting with great courage and cunning, and willing - or perhaps compelled - to die in large numbers; they were the antithesis of the military machine they faced. These men delayed, though they could not prevent, the American victory. More importantly, they laid the ground for the present insurgency. Gordon and Trainor reserve their most bitter criticism for Rumsfeld's irresponsible and obstinate refusal to provide the resources to secure the country that had fallen so easily into his lap.

Rory Stewart, a former British soldier and diplomat, had spent nearly two years walking across Iran and Afghanistan, and knew and liked the ordinary people of the Muslim world. Volunteering to serve in the civilian occupation of Iraq, he was sent as deputy governorate co- ordinator to the south-eastern province of Maysan. His task, according to his bureaucratic superiors in Baghdad, was to help set up "a multi-ethnic, decentralised, prosperous state, based on human rights, a just constitution, a vibrant civil society and the rule of law". In Occupational Hazards: my time governing in Iraq, Stewart draws a vivid picture of the real Iraq, the Iraq of which the ideologists who concocted the war in Washington and London knew little and cared less. Like a district commissioner from the British occupation in the 1920s, he extracted improbable sums of money from Baghdad for schools, hospitals and other projects to benefit the local people. He got on to good terms with the colourful local men of power. Most of these, alas, were suspicious, even contemptuous, of the occupiers and their inability to put the place back on its feet. Security, they believed, was the key. The solution, each man thought, was to reconstitute the secret police and to make him, rather than any of his numerous rivals, responsible for enforcing order. The office of the governorate co-ordinator was attacked with mortars. When Stewart finally left, one local, Asad, told him he would be sorely missed. Why then, Stewart asked, had he tried to kill him only a few weeks before? "Ah, Sayeed Rory," Asad grinned, "that was nothing personal."

Noah Feldman served as an adviser to the occupation authority in Baghdad. In What We Owe Iraq: war and the ethics of nation building, he sets out with much feeling the moral debt we have incurred to the Iraqi people by invading their country, destroying its state apparatus and presuming to build a new nation in its place. Just because a country is powerful and democratic itself, Feldman argues, does not mean it knows how to implant stable and durable democratic governments elsewhere. It can be done, he thinks, but it is exceptionally difficult. The occupier is bound to be influenced by self-interest, but he must give equal weight to the interests of those he is occupying, and provide the military weight and administrative competence to hold the ring while the locals sort themselves out. This the US has signally failed to do. Yet despite the temptation to cut and run, the occupiers must stay in Iraq until a new democratic government is stable and secure enough to run the country on its own. Anything less would be a shameful betrayal.

Feldman is right, of course. But he offers no confidence at all that this is achievable. More than three years on from the invasion, it seems we cannot usefully stay in Iraq, and cannot leave it with honour. Despite the best efforts of Rory Stewart and his dedicated British and American counterparts, the likelihood is that we will depart with the job undone, leaving behind a country riven by violence and instability, destined perhaps for disintegration or another despotism rather than the functioning democracy we promised. No doubt some will console themselves with the thought that we gave the Iraqis the chance and they did not take it: it is their fault, not ours.

This is the core of the matter: the moral confusion and emotional self-indulgence that surrounds the oxymoronic doctrine of "humanitarian war", proclaimed so enthusiastically by Blair in Chicago in 1999. Naturally, people of good will feel that something should be done when they see massacre or oppression abroad. Sometimes armed intervention may work, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo, though the business there is still unfinished. But war is never humanitarian. If you intervene with force of arms you will always kill innocent people, even if your weapons are "smart". And if the task is protracted you will demoralise your own soldiers as well. You will get more Abu Ghraibs and more Hadithas; your credentials will be increasingly tarnished, and in the end you may well leave the wretched people you came to help no better off, and perhaps worse, than they were. Not a very humanitarian outcome.

So before we launch on yet another attempt to do good by doing harm, we need to think long and hard. Have we correctly identified the problem? Do we have the resources, the will-power, the knowledge, the insight, the sustained domestic political support and the stamina to carry things to a successful conclusion? If we are not sure we can give positive answers to these questions, we should keep the bombers on the ground.

Self-righteous and plausible, and a consummate politician, Tony Blair has always gloried in the power and responsibility of the prime ministership. His record, he said, would be judged by history. So indeed it will. The judgement on his domestic policies is still unclear. They resemble the projects that littered the late Soviet industrial landscape - huge, wildly expensive and half- finished. But they work after a fashion, and that may be good enough.

It is not good enough for Blair's policies abroad. Like Eden, he has had his successes. But they have been wiped out by the disaster of Iraq. A country has been wrecked. Terrorism flourishes. Our closest ally has been discredited and humiliated. The Middle East, the source of much of our energy, is in turmoil. Muslims throughout the world have been turned against the west and its values. Our ability to construct a society in Britain in which people of all faiths and backgrounds can live harmoniously has been compromised. Blair has done far more damage to British interests than Eden, more perhaps than anyone since Chamberlain. Tory appeaser meets Labour adventurer: history at its most ironic.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a former ambassador to Russia and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. His book "Moscow 1941" has just been published by Profile (£20)

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?