This post appears on "Comment is Free".
Jonathan Steele's account of the defeat of western intervention in Iraq must have seemed a good idea in conception. Steele now has to make the best of the circumstance that, while his book was in press, events undermined him. Barring a fleeting reference to the multinational force's success in suppressing al-Qaida, his article this week might have been written a year ago for all its acknowledgement of Iraq's recent history.
I supported the Iraq war and would do so again. It was - to invoke Talleyrand's terminology - neither a crime nor a blunder to overthrow a gangster regime that was in breach of the UN security council resolutions (among many others) that marked the conditions for ceasefire in the first Gulf war in 1991. But it was nearly a failure. Culpable negligence by the Bush administration left post-Saddam Iraq without a functioning state. The combined forces of Baathism and jihadism (grotesquely lauded by some columnists on this newspaper as the "resistance") opportunistically filled that vacuum, with unmitigated barbarism and an appalling civilian death toll.
Steele believes defeat was foreordained, and scorns the notion that "a more intelligent and efficient occupation could have worked". It is, in fact, not difficult to see how a better strategy - in particular, one with more troops - might have worked after the fall of Saddam. That strategy has, after all, demonstrably produced results since President Bush changed course a year ago and appointed General David Petraeus as commander of the multinational force. Most important, Iraqis are safer since the surge in US troops reached full strength last June. According to Petraeus, speaking last month: "Every trend we watch is down roughly about 60%: civilian deaths, numbers of attacks, and thankfully our casualties are down as well."
That outcome is not fortuitous. I was fortunate to meet General Petraeus, and listen to his assessment of Iraq's security needs, before he took up his post. He has continually insisted that security is the prerequisite for political progress. To write of the surge's achievements is not to prettify the quality of life in Baghdad and its surrounding areas. But the successes - notably in turning Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere against al-Qaida - are of the highest importance.
Al-Qaida sought to destroy nascent constitutional authority in Iraq. It is being rebuffed on the ground that it chose. Alongside the surge in US troops, there has been a surge in the recruitment of additional Iraqi troops and police. While acknowledging the sectarian character of the Maliki government and its failure to achieve conciliation at national level, Petraeus undemonstratively created facts on the ground.
Government sclerosis is no longer an insuperable obstacle to political advance. Iraq is far from a fully-fledged federal democracy, but neither does it conform to Steele's tendentious depiction of a project that lies in ruins. Two years ago, after the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, Iraq was in a state of incipient civil war. Now the US has belatedly found an effective counterinsurgency strategy, and the war against Baathism and jihadism is winnable. There is a serious prospect, at least, of a decentralised and pluralist Iraq where constitutional authority has something approaching a monopoly of the means of force.
I do not expect Guardian readers to share my admiration for Tony Blair's foreign policies. But it would be perverse for them to accept Steele's caricature of what has been achieved or deny the importance of Iraq's prospects to our security. One point the much-reviled neoconservatives have right is that Islamist terrorism has deep roots in the perpetuation of autocratic states in the Middle East. Denied an outlet in politics, dissent emerges in the only part of society open to it: religious fanaticism. The overthrow of the most bestial of despotisms in that region removes a crucial player and an appalling dynasty from that equation.
We can, moreover, verifiably assert that two of the states in the region that previously held WMD - Iraq and Libya - no longer do so, owing directly to our intervention. If Iran did indeed suspend the more overtly military aspects of its nuclear programme (though not uranium enrichment, for which its civil nuclear programme has no need) in late 2003, that is also suggestive that Saddam's overthrow gave greater impetus to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation than CND cares to acknowledge.
A year after Saddam's overthrow, the Nobel Peace Laureate José Ramos Horta said: "If I were a political leader of any consequence and I was asked a question regarding the options for Iraq, I would say that retreating and conceding victory to the terrorists is not an option - for the consequences are far too high to contemplate." Among the many errors and periodic disasters of post-war policy in Iraq, that one - the most damaging of any course we might take - has been avoided. Our allies in the region facing down the forces of theocratic reaction deserve nothing less than our continued commitment.