A brief, perhaps overly quick response by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to an almost offhand question has sent shock waves through diplomatic circles by signaling what could trigger a tectonic shift in the allies' approach to the bloody quandary that has become Iraq. And because of one key word, not even an attempt by his 10 Downing Street spin doctors to fuzz up the issue could smooth over the resulting turmoil.
That word was "disaster," in the context of the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain-particularly the aftermath of fighting and pillaging that has raged across that tormented land and the seemingly unending violence that now has both Washington and London working behind the scenes for what might best be described as a way out.
David Frost-a veteran television interviewer, but not exactly noted for his hardball questioning-threw out at Blair, on an Al-Jazeera International English-language program, more of a suggestion than a question, and one that would seem to be easy to dodge: The West's military intervention in Iraq, Frost opined simply, had "so far been pretty much of a disaster." In a stunningly unexpected moment, the prime minister blurted out, "It has."
With that, the "disaster" genie was out of the bottle, and even the swift and frantic efforts of Blair's Downing Street operatives to spin out the controversy by describing Blair's remark as "a slip of the tongue" could not shove it back in again.
Blair, in fact, had extended his reply to Frost's suggestion that Iraq had been, indeed, a disaster: "It has, but you see what I say to people is why is it difficult in Iraq? … It's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy: Al-Qaeda with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other, to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."
But it was the word "disaster" in the exchange that left an indelible impression, because it marked the first time the British leader had appeared anything but confident about the invasion, supremely optimistic about the democracy to which it was all supposed to be leading and more than President George W. Bush's "poodle" in the eyes of some critics.
In fact, in seeming to agree to the "disaster" description of U.S.-British involvement in Iraq, Blair was echoing the sentiment of the majority of Britons as reflected in practically every opinion poll on the subject for the past two years, during which the body bags of British troops killed in the fighting have steadily mounted. Some political experts suggest that what the prime minister was doing was aimed at sending out an olive branch to other nations in the inflamed Middle East-particularly Iran and Syria-as well as trying to muffle his growing army of critics at home.
Certainly Blair is under sustained pressure to find a way to get British troops out of Iraq and to perhaps persuade the Americans to do likewise. One of his most loyal cabinet members, Trade and Industry Minister Margaret Hodge, is reported to have described the war as "a big mistake" and accused the prime minister himself of "moral imperialism."
Barely a month ago, Britain's top general, Chief of Staff Richard Dannatt, went on record as urging Britain to get its troops out of Iraq soon because their presence "exacerbates the security problem." (Click here for coverage.)
One factor in the prime minister's abrupt shift to the "disaster" school of thought on Iraq is seen in some quarters as perhaps a loosening, however slight, of his ties to the Bush Administration in the wake of the November elections, which saw the president's ruling Republicans lose control of both houses of Congress.
If, as some believe, Blair is actively seeking some door to open for his nation's forces to walk out of the conflict, the prime minister himself may have provided a hint with his remark during the Frost interview on Al-Jazeera International that "we are not walking away from Iraq. We will stay as long as the [Iraqi] government needs us to stay." The key could be in the second sentence: If the Iraqis can be persuaded to agree that they no longer need U.S. and British forces, so the theory goes, then the allies close up shop and go home.
It might not be all that far-fetched an idea. As General Dannatt commented, "Whatever consent we may have had in the first place (from the Iraqis) has largely turned to intolerance." A report by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore last month, that 654,965 Iraqis have died over the last three years, could well feed that intolerance.
Meanwhile, the growing disenchantment with the conflict, or conflicts, in Iraq steadily mounts with the statistics that underline the price: At least 125 British soldiers and 2,865 Americans killed, nearly 5,000 British and more than 21,000 Americans wounded.
"Disaster" would be a hard word to argue against.
Al Webb is a freelance journalist based in Britain and a veteran foreign correspondent. He served as chief Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, for US News & World Report magazine and with United Press International as a combat correspondent in Vietnam, bureau manager at United Nations headquarters in New York, chief Middle East correspondent based in Beirut, news editor based in Hong Kong for the Asian Division, and news editor for European-Middle East-Africa Division based in London.