Basra withdrawal: a media stunt to end a PR war

British army chiefs pulled out all the stops to get the ‘right image’ of the pullout from Basra.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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The British troop withdrawal from Basra has both been hailed as a victory and described as a defeat. For the UK tabloid the Sun, the movement of 600 soldiers from Basra palace to a British airbase 10 miles outside of Basra is an ‘historic moment’. It has taken ‘guts, skill and determination’, says the Sun, to reach a point where the British can ‘hand the city back to the Iraqis’. Yet for the Daily Mail, the withdrawal is an ‘ignominious defeat’ and a ‘sad day in our military history’ (1).

So, which is it: a memorable or shameful moment for the Brits?

It’s neither. The withdrawal is better understood as a tightly-controlled PR stunt designed to make the British elite’s lack of political will for staying in Iraq look like something more meaningful. The movement of the last-remaining British troops from the centre of Basra to the outskirts of Basra doesn’t represent a break from Britain’s strategy in Iraq, in the form of a final victory or a crushing defeat. Rather, the withdrawal only makes the political reality – which is that in spirit the British pulled out of Iraq long ago – into a formal reality, too.

All the talk of victory or defeat overlooks the fact that the British army has not been fighting a war in Basra. British soldiers effectively withdrew from the streets of Basra two years ago and have spent much of the time since hunkered down in their barracks. In Basra, what has been celebrated by some as Britain’s ‘softly softly’ approach in Iraq actually meant that soldiers rarely ventured out. Following violent clashes between Basra residents and British soldiers in September 2005, Reuters reported that troops had started to ‘confine themselves to their barracks, lowering their profile in an effort to tamp down tensions’ (2).

In 2006, the Daily Telegraph reported that ‘keeping a low profile’ seemed to have become central to Britain’s ‘peacekeeping strategy’: ‘The British garrison in Basra [is] virtually confined to barracks, fearful that its presence on the streets will provoke further violent assaults.’ (3) According to some accounts, troops’ unwillingness to patrol the streets, lest their presence disturb the peace, acted as a green light to insurgent groups to fight each other for control of Basra and also to attack British barracks; even British soldiers’ occasional hand-to-hand combat with insurgents tended to take place around the barracks or on supply lines between the Basra airbase and Basra city. Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins said that British troops were ‘imprisoned’ in their barracks and only ‘intermittently’ went outside. ‘This is not countering violence, nor does it constitute control’, he argued (4).

The withdrawal should be seen in this context: it comes, not after a grand battle between British soldiers and a lethal enemy, or following the transformation of Basra into a beacon of peace and democracy (one report says it took 16 hours for British troops to complete the 10-mile journey from the palace to the airbase, because the route had to be thoroughly checked for Improvised Explosive Devices), but rather after two years of what I have termed a ‘phantom occupation’. As the leaders of the Coalition in Washington and London have increasingly lost the political will over Iraq, continually disavowing sovereign responsibility for what happens there, their armies have remained on the ground largely as tokens of the Coalition’s commitment. Coalition leaders hope that their troops’ continuing presence provides physical evidence that they remain steadfast and devoted to ‘liberating Iraq’ where no political evidence for such steadfastness exists. Now, in Basra, a phantom army is calling off its phantom occupation of a mostly ungoverned city. British troops are fizzling out of Basra rather than leaving as a victorious force or a defeated mess.

And yet this withdrawal, the logical conclusion of Britain’s political exhaustion over Iraq, has been cynically spun by the Ministry of Defence. In recent weeks, army chiefs privately discussed getting the ‘right image’ of Britain’s pullout from the Basra palace. According to The Times, they feared that this could become Britain’s ‘Saigon moment’, and were especially keen to ‘avoid a photograph of the last helicopter taking off from the palace: the image would be too close to that of the last helicopter taking off from the American embassy in Saigon in April 1975, an enduring symbol of US defeat’ (5).

To this end, the MoD tightly controlled the staging and presentation of the palace pullout. It employed its own staff to film soldiers walking from the palace, some of them flying the British flag and giving the thumbs-up, and distributed the footage to news stations. It also seems to have struck a deal with Tom Newton Dunn, defence editor of the Sun and apparently the only British journalist allowed to witness the Basra withdrawal. Newton Dunn appears to have kept up his side of the bargain, with frontpage splashes titled ‘JOB DONE’ and ‘LIONS OF BASRA’ – about as far from a ‘Saigon moment’ as you can get.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 started with a search for the ‘right image’: Coalition leaders hoped that winning the soft target of Basra, and being cheered by the anti-Ba’athist Shia population for doing so, would become ‘the defining image of the war’. Now, after four years of instability and disarray (which was never part of that original ‘defining image’ plan) MoD officials desperately try to concoct an image of British troops leaving gallantly after getting the ‘JOB DONE’. It is a fitting end to what has always been a PR war: where the Coalition started the war with armed stunts and gestures designed to send a message about their grit and determination, they are bringing it to an end by staging an apparently heroic troop withdrawal for the Sun’s defence editor.

The Coalition hoped that images of victory in Iraq in 2003 would provide it with a sense of political purpose; now it hopes that images of anything-but-defeat can gloss over its political exhaustion.

Politically and emotionally, Britain left Iraq long ago – and the removal of a few hundred troops from Basra palace is only the logical follow-up. Britain’s lack of stomach for remaining in Iraq is unwittingly captured in one of Newton Dunn’s MoD-cheering fluff pieces in the Sun. He reports that a 19-year-old British soldier, who was injured in Basra and flown home for medical treatment, begged his doctors, nurses and army handlers to let him return to the city and continue looking out for insurgents. He was so eager to return that the staff ‘feared for his sanity and sent him to a psychiatrist’ (6). This captures the real British view of Iraq: it’s one thing to stage a PR war and PR withdrawal there, leaving instability and violence in your wake, but you’d have to be stone cold mad to want to stay in the bloody place.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq was turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. He explained why death by friendly fire became a big issue in Iraq, and told the truth about British casualties. Patrick West said it was the Brits who invented ‘friendly fire’. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

(1) Headlines bemoan Basra ‘retreat’, BBC News, 4 September 2007

(2) Iraqis demand apology, British keep low profile, Reuters, 22 September 2005

(3) The time to pull out of Iraq draws near, Daily Telegraph, 5 September 2006

(4) Blair has been blinded by an imperialist illusion, Guardian, 31 May 2006

(5) Army chiefs fear Iraq exit will be Britain’s Saigon moment, The Times, 19 August 2007

(6) Faces of freedom, Sun, 4 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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