The “coalition of the willing” is over. One by one, its members have ceded the bloodstained ground to the battling Iraqis and the unyielding U.S. president. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision Monday to halve the vestigial British military force in Basra was inevitable; backing the U.S. in Iraq has become a political albatross for governments all over the world.
Washington had always exaggerated the strength of the coalition, which once numbered 34 countries. But Spain and New Zealand pulled out troops in 2004; the Netherlands, Hungary, Singapore, Norway and Ukraine left in 2005, followed by Japan and Italy in 2006. Georgia and Poland, which desperately need U.S. goodwill as a bulwark against a resurgent Russia, still maintain a symbolic presence.
But Britain is our special ally, and so its decision to bail out is momentous. British forces, once more than 45,000 strong, will be cut from the current 5,000 to 2,500, with no promise to stay beyond the spring. Whitehall and the White House attempted to portray the move as made possible by the success of the U.S. troop “surge.” In fact, it was made essential by Brown’s vulnerability on the war issue. More ominously, it represents a repudiation of the Bush administration’s argument that stability in Iraq is of vital importance to the entire Western world.
Given the series of terror attacks in Britain by Islamic fundamentalists, it is significant that the Brown government sees no existential threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq and is willing to outsource the job to the Americans. The remaining British troops are to focus on training and “overwatch” of the Iraqi security forces.
Does this mean Basra is now calm and secure? Hardly. The strategic province has been riddled by Shiite-on-Shiite violence that has little to do with ideology and plenty to do with who controls lucrative smuggling, as well as the port through which much of Iraq’s oil moves. Basra is nowhere near as dangerous as Baghdad -- except for those caught in the crossfire of the gangland-style wars on the waterfront, the victims of political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and crime mafias.
So the British will not leave behind a peaceful Basra, but they are nonetheless right to leave it. The United States should take note and recognize that it is a delusion to believe that any foreign occupier can stop Iraqi factions hellbent on fighting for power. We owe the Iraqis our best efforts at mediation, but to insist on stability as a prerequisite for withdrawal is to commit to indefinite and fruitless military occupation.