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Some mistakes, but invasion 'was right'

Mark Mardell | 10:29 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The vice-president is in Baghdad to stress the mission has changed but America will remain as a partner in Iraq. Many feel the war was a huge mistake, fought on the basis of allegations that turned out not to be true, an episode from which America's reputation has taken a battering in the world.

The president will have his say tonight (at midnight UK time) but I wanted to find out what those who backed the war feel now.

So I've been talking to one of the architects of the war, Richard Armitage, who was Under Secretary of State at the time. The jovial former commando who earned a hardman reputation in Vietnam is still massively built, his arms and shoulders muscled from his hobby of powerlifting, but he seems less of a hawk these days. Indeed he surprised me, admitting the Bush administration made huge mistakes.

He said: "I'm obviously not sorry about the fact that we invaded Iraq, but I'm terribly sorry about the manner in which we invaded it, we really hammed it up a bit...

"I think we had far too few troops, we were far too unprepared, for the fractions in Iraqi society - I don't think we took enough counsel from our friends prior to going in. You name it, we did it - took us a long time to finally get it right.

"In April of 2003 when that statue of Saddam Hussein came down and young men were hitting it with their sandals and whatnot, the international community was saying George Bush was pretty damn smart, he got this thing done pretty well, but it was after the looting, and after the Iraqis saw that we weren't there to put order in the place that our problems began."

I asked why he felt those mistakes were made.

"I've thought about it a lot - the initial impression from the Department of Defense was that they wanted to go in as light as possible - we had campaigned on light, mobile, hostile agile forces and I think that [US defence secretary] Mr [Donald] Rumsfeld and his colleagues were intent on proving that - and by the way, Secretary [of State Colin] Powell as has been reported was able to double the size of the invasion force.

"I think as a general rule the biggest initial mistake we made, was that we overlooked an essential fact of combat and that is only infantry men with a bayonet can bend an enemy to our will and by going in too light we gave the enemy time to re-constitute and reassert their will."

Richard Armitage was seen as one of the leading neo-con hawks who believed in using military power to mould the world, one of the founding signatures to the Project for the New American Century, with its belief "that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle".

So where did he think the war left America's attitude to conflict?

"Well I guess I don't know, because I don't know what the future's going to bring but I guess you can see many of our enemies historically think Americans will get short of breath - this is what we heard in Beirut - but the fact that we've endured seven years in Iraq and our ninth year in Afghanistan shows quite the opposite - shows that we are willing to give it a good go, and the public is willing to support it as long as they feel we're doing the right thing but they won't do it forever."

Had the conflict not reduced America's appetite for war?

"I think in the near-term it has and I think it's depleted to some extent our coffers, but I think, as I was indicating, Americans can be awfully bloody-minded when the situation requires it."

But what justifications were there for war: simple defence, getting rid of hostile regimes or intervening to get rid of dictators?

"Well I think depending on the situation it could be all of the above. It is certainly from my point of view worth going to war for self-defence and I think most of us did feel that Iraq had WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] and after all they had used them on their own people.

"I think there's always a bit of a desire to make the world a better place, to leave the world in a better place than you've found it - when you're dealing with warfare and that amount of violence, that is a difficult thing to do admittedly."

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