Word going around is that tomorrow British PM Tony Blair is going to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. The initial "stand down" will be some 1500 troops, rumoured to be completed within weeks, and another 1500 by year's end. That represents almost half of the British contingent of 7,000 troops, most of whom are stationed in the predominantly Shi'ite south of Iraq, in places such as Basra and Umm Qasr. These areas, while far less dangerous than Baghdad and the rest of the Suuni Triangle, still have their share of danger, and the British have done an admirable job of bringing a significant measure of security to that region of the war-torn country.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer was quick--almost a little too quick--to highlight that the British have been America's most steadfast ally in the Iraq War and that this move by Britain represents a potential split between the two allies, citing that they may not be "on the same page." To me, this sounds like an attempt to portray the United States and the Bush Administration as isolated on Iraq. I can't believe that Blair would announce such a significant policy without at first consulting with Bush, giving him something of a heads-up. Blind-siding your best friend and ally isn't something in Blair's character, so my wager is that Bush was aware of this maneuver and gave it his blessing. He may be frustrated at the move, as it does seem a paradox that Britain is lowering its force output while America is "surging" its troop numbers in Baghdad, but he has no other option but to respect the sovereign decision of London.
Where does this leave Washington? Getting closer and closer to fulfilling Bush's prophecy of some years ago that "at some point, we may be the only ones left" fighting in the War on Terror & Tyranny. Though I remain supportive of the theoretical framework behind the Iraq War, it is clear that there have a number of wasted opportunities to rebuild the country and further assist its transition to a functional, secure, and fully sovereign democratic state. Though the UN was formally given a role in reconstruction via the passage of a Security Council Resolution internationalizing post-war Iraq, the United States has been unable to get other states to assist it. Whether due to lingering wounds over the war debate or a reluctance to allow other states to carry the weight (a point on which I can empathize to an extent), the inability to get other states more on-board, to get them to feel as though they have a stake in the country's future, is a diplomatic failure for which Secretary Rice needs to be held accountable. She has been largely invisible in recent months, notwithstanding her recent trip to Iraq, a major disappointment given the promise she held when she first took over the role from the much-respected Colin Powell.
In the end, the only thing that matters at this point is securing Iraq to the extent that it can at least govern itself without permitting terrorist organizations or neighbouring Iran to hold significant influence over its future. Either of these scenarios would represent a nightmare, antithetical to the stated objectives of the United States for removing Saddam Hussein. The British have not announced a total withdrawal, and it is in their interest as well as Washington's to consider the notion of moving troops closer to the middle of the country to help out in the most dangerous regions. That is something which only Britain can ultimately decide, but the close London-Washington relationship and Britain's own considerable stake in the outcome of Iraq would hopefully lead them to consider all the options that are on the table before them.