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Monday, February 23, 2009

Iraq: The British Should Have Led the Coalition

The Iraq War was a complete debacle from the beginning of the insurgency in May 2003 until mid 2007. The United States and its civilian planners were completely out of their depth in understanding the causes of the insurgency and how to combat it. While Afghanistan and Pakistan were the central fronts in the war on terror, Iraq in the Rumsfeld/Bremer years became a dangerous sideshow.

But one must ask the question. Why was Baghdad so dangerous while Basra, Iraq’s second largest city was relatively speaking calm? Simple: The British occupied Basra, the Americans Baghdad.

The United Kingdom is a mature country with a mature understanding of diplomacy, war, and economics. The United States on the other hand is a highly reactionary country that gets caught up in the moment and the quest for vengeance. Even when the US has had mature leadership in the form of Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon, the unsophisticated whims of domestic politics have always undermined their greater goals.

Additionally, thanks to years of combating the terrorist Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Belfast and even on the streets and in the train stations of London itself, the British understand how to stamp out an insurgency and how not to alienate a local population. The British patrolled the streets of Basra on foot working with the locals to stamp out any Shiite groups that were working with Iran or with Moktada al-Sadr. It is also worth mentioning that British troops are generally more disciplined than American troops in urban settings.

By contrast, Paul Bremer alienated the local population and shut down the Shiites leading paper, Al-Hawza whose editors had actually welcomed the US led overthrow of Saddam Hussien. Americans patrolled in Humvees and armored tanks setting up the look of an armed occupation, or even worse a war for conquest.

Of course nobody knows more about wars of conquest than the British. A Hundred Years ago the British Empire was the largest in human history, and had been more or less conquered through disgraceful means. So the British knew if you are “liberating” a population how to appear: it’s distinctly different than if you are “conquering” a nation.

Tony Blair may have alienated many on the left in the UK and US but he remained a credible worldwide voice and an inspirational figure throughout his Premiership. Had Blair taken the public worldwide lead instead of the bombastic, unrefined George W. Bush, world opinion towards the US led invasion of Iraq probably would have been different.

Blair could have been the spokesperson while his Government did the military planning in consultation with the Americans. Troops commitments did not need to change from either ally: in fact had it been done the British way, aka the right way, less troops may have been needed and less causalities would have ensued.

In the forthcoming, almost inevitable conflict with either Iran or the Taliban, President Obama would be wise to consult with the British about strategy and public relations. The world hopes that the west will not have to militarily disarm Iran, but in all honesty time is not on our sides.

While diplomacy may eventually work with Iran, it will never work with the Taliban. Winning the war in Afghanistan and helping Pakistan stabilize itself while keeping India from lashing out militarily at Pakistan or the Taliban is now the key. India may believe they have the right to strike at Pakistan due to the almost constant threat of terrorism on Indian soil. Perhaps India is right: but an Indian attack on Pakistan could launch us into the biggest armed conflict since World War II, and it is incumbent on all parties to diffuse the situation.

If the US and UK are forced to engage in another massive military conflict, allowing the UK to leverage its immense soft power and formulate the military strategy would be a good idea.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.