I had faith in America’s plan for Iraq. I was wrong

Before the bombers went in, there were many obvious and powerful arguments against invading Iraq. There were many people who expressed those arguments forcefully, in good faith and in bad.

But there were many people who, like me, supported the invasion nonetheless because we had faith that the Americans knew what they were doing and believed it was in our best interests and right for Britain to support them.

It seems I was wrong.

It would be hard to imagine anything more absurdly trivial, in the light of the misery in Iraq, than the recantation of one journalist in a London suburb or even the recantation of a handful of us, now there is beginning to be a fashion for it.

However, I believe that the disillusion I feel is spreading fast among Britons who are admirers and supporters of the United States and that, in so far as British attitudes matter much to the Americans or to international affairs, real harm has been done.

I never imagined that the real reasons for the Iraq invasion were idealistic. The messianic rhetoric of George W Bush and Tony Blair about a conflict between good and evil — and their neo-colonialist mission to be a light unto the nations, beginning by conferring democracy and western values on Iraq — always struck me as absurd.

Blair has a terrible tendency to take off on the wings of this sort of poesy. Sometimes I thought they were both deluded enough to believe it; at other times I assumed it was just demagoguery, manipulating the masses.

Nor did I imagine, whatever they said, that their primary purpose was to deliver a suffering people from its oppressor. They could have done that elsewhere in the world, for example in Zimbabwe.

Of course, the Iraqis’ liberation from the cruelty of Saddam Hussein sounded like a welcome byproduct of war, not to mention a useful justification for it. But the real purpose of regime change, I imagined, was enlightened self-interest, as Bill Clinton had also believed.

From a western point of view, especially after the September 11 mass murders, the Middle East needed sorting out somehow.

It is an unstable, enraged part of the world that produces terrorists, rogue regimes and oil, along with a threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and nuclear proliferation.

It may not be high-minded, but there is nothing necessarily wrong with self-interest. Those liberals who professed to be shocked that the proposed invasion was “really” about oil had clearly not given much thought to what western democracy, and western hospitals and factories, would be like without secure oil supplies. As for the warnings of the fury of the Arab “street” if infidels were to invade the holy lands of Iraq, there was hope that it might be calmed if the country became safer and richer for Iraqis in the process.

It wasn’t at all obvious to me before the invasion that Iraq was the place to start dealing with these threats but Saddam was clearly aggressive and dangerous, and I assumed — to the incredulity of my anti-war friends and now to my own — that the US government had a cunning strategic plan.

Not being privy to state secrets, I hardly expected to know what it was. It did seem rather a mystery, the more I thought about it. But, in the end, you have to trust your government (however deceitful and manipulative, like Blair’s) and its chief ally to know what to do and how to do it, without being forced to reveal secrets.

To my amazement, it has become clearer and clearer that any such trust was misplaced and that the Americans really did not have a cunning plan, or much of a coherent plan at all, any more than Saddam had WMD.

Such plans as they did have, following a swift early victory, have been executed with what one commentator has called unfathomable incompetence.

Perhaps it is too early to despair. Perhaps in time the threat of “Balkanisation” and civil war in Iraq may recede.

Perhaps it is irresponsible to add, however minutely, to the demoralisation of coalition forces while there is still some slight hope of an acceptable outcome.

The occupation of Iraq appears, certainly, to have collapsed into chaos and shame but that appearance may have a lot to do with the professional deformity of many reporters — exaggeration and media machismo, complicated often by political bias and a convoluted desire to believe the worst of any situation, and particularly of the West.

All the same, it is impossible to discount the terrible news of recent days. The siege of Falluja has proved a disastrous humiliation.

For all their might, the Americans felt obliged to retreat and then went through a terrible black comedy of handing over security first to one former general of Saddam plus motorcade, only to dump him suddenly and pick another one instead.

Meanwhile, Iraqi support for the coalition appears to be dwindling. According to an opinion poll for the newspaper USA Today (published before last week’s torture photos appeared), 82% of people in Baghdad said they saw the coalition forces as occupiers rather than liberators and more than 60% of Arabs across the country, both Sunni and Shia, said the American and British troops should leave immediately. The handover sounds like a dangerous mess and there is talk of partition.

ITN reports that the Americans have lost control of many key highways, and that reconstruction work has virtually ground to a halt. About half of all foreign workers have left Iraq temporarily or for good.

The world is awash with shock and schadenfreude at the pictures of an American trailer-trash Jezebel humiliating helpless

Arab prisoners; and Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, had to apologise abjectly on Friday for what Senator Edward Kennedy has called “a catastrophic crisis of credibility for our nation”.

The public figure who mentioned My Lai was none other than Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, who was clearly tormented. President Bush is now calling for more troops and another $25 billion.

Where is the plan here? What was the plan? It remains a mystery. The coalition seems to be failing even on the simplest grounds of self-interest, let alone on any idealistic grand project. I trusted the Americans to know what they were doing and how to do it.

Instead, it seems, there has been a long, unresolved struggle going on in the US administration between different planners and different plans, between neo-conservative visionaries, old-fashioned conservatives and various vested interests. There has been a tragic tension between the messianics and the minimalists.

As a result, there has been not just mission creep but mission lurch and mission muddle, followed ignominiously now, in the fog of war, by mission shrink — the temptation to cut and run. That would be very wrong.

I wish we could trust the coalition not to do it, but trust has been one of the many casualties of this war.