Britain's Future in Iraq

Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, discussed Britain’s Iraq Commission with National Interest editor-at-large Ximena Ortiz.

Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), takes us behind the scenes of the Iraq Commission, which made its ground-breaking report on Saturday. In an interview with National Interest editor-at-large Ximena Ortiz, Hollis said that "the future of Iraq is sufficiently bleak", and that the United States and Britain will be continually blamed for the next several years. The future of Iraq, she said, belongs to Iran.

There are recent indications that the commission's report is being heard and heeded on Downing Street. On Saturday, Lord Malloch Brown, a Foreign Office minister, said that Prime Minister Brown would not be "joined at the hip" with President Bush. And when the defense minister spoke Monday of plans to draw down 500 forces from Iraq, he stressed the ability of the Iraqi forces to assume control, rather than the overall Iraqi security situation-echoing the recommendations of the commission. Given all the testimony you heard with the commission and these recent remarks, what is your impression of the mood in London? Could the new government be inclined to implement some of your suggestions?

As you picked up in your question, the current British policy is that there will be a British presence in Iraq to so-called "get the job done." That job is about restoring Iraq to peace and stability and indeed even democracy. What the commission recommends is a modest and definable goal of handing over responsibility to the Iraqi forces once they're ready, which is already happening, and completing a job of training Iraqi forces-and then leaving. This is something that the commission thinks is possible to measure, whereas the other goal of staying until Iraq is stable, democratic and peaceful is open-ended and could leave the British and Iraqis not really knowing when there would be a British departure.

By attaching the departure date to the situation on the ground, the commission feels the British end up letting themselves into a vicious cycle, because at the moment the vast majority of the attacks taking place in the south of the country are by Iraqis on the British soldiers, as opposed to by Iraqis on Iraqis. So if the British maintain the idea that they must remain until those attacks stop-and yet they are by their very presence the reasons for the attacks in the first place-a vicious cycle is created, one that will be desirable to break.

The government is on a course which is set for the drawdown of British troops in Iraq and for the handing over of responsibilities for local security problems to the Iraqis. So the new administration of Gordon Brown doesn't actually need to have a massive reversal of policy in order to continue the drawdown. However, to embrace the recommendations of the Iraq Commission, they would, in fact, be changing the emphasis of the goals. They would be turning necessity into virtue and saying that the job we are engaged in is principally training the Iraqis from now on as we hand over responsibility. And we'll know once we've done as much as we can to train the Iraqis, whereas we don't know when or how we would get a stable, secure situation on the ground that would enable us to leave under our present objectives.

The commission concluded that there are now only painful options left for Iraq. What do you believe will be the impact for Britain and the United States of the world continuing to see a smoldering Iraq? How will each country's leadership and leverage be affected in the Middle East and beyond? Have the countries handicapped themselves? What bearing could it have, for example, on President Bush's decision to ramp up Quartet efforts towards Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and how it could affect Blair's potential role as the envoy of the Quartet?

There is the possibility that the worst legacy of the Iraq tragedy will attach to George W. Bush and to one or two members of his administration and to Tony Blair personally. And therefore it might be possible for their successors in government to disassociate themselves from the worst of the legacy.

But the situation is significantly bad, and the future of Iraq is sufficiently bleak, that it's impossible for America and Britain not to be continually blamed, not to have to live with that and not to be chastened when it comes to other future engagements overseas. So yes, their credibility and their maneuverability and their leverage will take a toll. But if to tell me that the United States will hang in there, not because of something they can achieve-something that's been called victory-but in order to maintain their credibility in the region, I fear that that won't work either.

As far as the Quartet and Tony Blair is concerned, I think it has to be understood that Tony Blair will not be representing Britain and that, indeed, he can probably only succeed in his new potential role if he doesn't represent Britain. But rather he comes with all the experience he's gained as British prime minister, and will be working on behalf of the members of the Quartet with special access to Washington. Britain isn't even a member of the Quartet except through the European Union. So I think you have to leave him aside in terms of what difference it would make in what British policy is under Gordon Brown for the region.