Despite the British government's repeated protests against rumors of slipping support for Bush's war in Iraq, British military presence in Iraq is dwindling.
According to an Agence France-Presse report last week, the British government will further reduce its troop levels in Iraq once presumptive prime minister-to-be Gordon Brown takes over for the resigning Tony Blair.
The story quoted both Brown and Blair as emphasizing that British friendship with the US remains strong, but neither politician was quoted as denying that British troop levels would fall further than already planned.
The British government has already announced a more than 20% reduction in its force levels in 2007, down close to 80% from the 45,000 troops used during the invasion in 2003. (By comparison, US troop levels are at more than half the troop levels used during the invasion.)
While the Bush administration has pretended that the British withdrawal is based on British successes in its main area of operations in southern Iraq around Basra, Middle East expert Juan Cole says the truth is the opposite.
"In reality," wrote Cole back in February, "southern Iraq is a quagmire that has defeated all British efforts to impose order, and Blair was pressed by his military commanders to get out altogether -- and quickly."
(Interestingly, the White House hasn't accused the British of "cut and run" or "defeatism" or "setting a timetable for defeat" or allowing the "enemy" to simply wait for them to leave before turning the region into chaos. It appears to be already pretty chaotic.)
As further evidence of the reality in southern Iraq, AFP reports that the British are holding secret negotiations with non-Al-Qaeda insurgents before leaving. Apparently the plan is to give them incentive to oppose Al-Qaeda's influence in the region, probably with power sharing proposals and bribes.
In addition, growing opposition to the war and demands for troop withdrawal among the British people, which is in essence the main factor behind Blair's early retirement and growing Labor Party losses at the polls, is also playing a major role in forcing the early exit.
Gordon Brown is holding his cards close to his vest on the troop withdrawal issue, probably because he wants to avoid any intervention from Bush prior to his ascension to prime minister. To be sure, Brown will speed up British withdrawal from Iraq – if he wants to keep his job long.
Good news for Bush is that Japan's ruling right-wing parties are pushing hard to keep a contingent of Japan's self-defense forces in Iraq for at least another two years – over the objections of Japan's Democratic, Social Democratic, and Communist Parties about the legality of the move.
Unfortunately for Bush's stay-the-course plan, the Japanese SDF contingent is non-combat and number only in the hundreds. In fact, Japanese law is so stringent about deploying SDF troops abroad and their involvement in combat that SDF troops are protected by US troops in Iraq. Though Japan's air force contingent appears to be illegally supporting some combat operations.
While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the votes he needs to pass the measure, Japanese Constitutional law still forbids combat action. A large and influential peace movement in Japan will also likely hinder Abe from going much further. His political opponents have accused him of trying to revitalize Japan's military prowess through its support for Bush's Middle East agenda.
While it has become painfully clear to most rational observers that politics rather than combat is the only way to resolve the quagmire in Iraq, Abe is using Bush's stubborn refusal to accept reality as a vehicle for dissolving Article 9 of Japan's Constitution, which forbids involvement in foreign wars, and for taking steps to boost Japan's military might and influence.
Abe and his ruling coalition believe Japan has an interest in checking China's growing economic and political influence in East Asia. Strengthening its military support for the US may cut both ways, as a recent article in The Guardian (Australia) opines. In fact, Japan, the US, and Australia, which under Conservative Party Prime Minister John Howard is also one of the last staunch supporters of Bush's occupation of Iraq, are seeking military and economic alliances against China.