The Age

By Tom Switzer

In the very final episode of Fawlty Towers, the local health and safety inspector confronts a hapless Basil with a long and horrendous list of everything that is wrong with his hotel, including ''dirty and greasy filters, encrusted deep fryer, inadequate temperature control, dirty, cracked and missing wall and floor tiles, greasy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, storage of raw meat above confectionary with consequent dripping of meat juices onto cream products, refrigerator seals loose and cracked, lack of hand basins and two dead pigeons in the water tank''.

To which the inimitable John Cleese replied: ''Otherwise OK?''

I was reminded of that classic comedy recently when Tony Blair, who helped lead us into the Iraq flytrap 10 years ago, appeared on BBC's Newsnight (Britain's version of Lateline). In painstaking detail, the former British prime minister admitted that life in Iraq today is not quite what he had hoped it would be.

After all, there ''are still terrorist activities that are killing innocent people for no good reason''. The ''liberation'' of Iraq saw the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians (other estimates are up to 200,000), not to mention thousands of coalition troops. The country is still facing ''big problems''.

All true, conceded Blair. But when all is said and done, he reasoned, at least a murderous despot is gone and democracy has taken root in the heart of the Arab world.

Expect to hear John Howard sell a similar message at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on April 9 to mark the 10th anniversary of Baghdad's fall to coalition forces.

Never mind that the war was built on a series of falsehoods. Never mind that the tried and tested policy of containment (sanctions, no-fly zone, naval blockade) had kept Saddam Hussein in his box. And never mind that the task of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure.

The point here is that 10 years since ''shock and awe'', Iraq has become an unmitigated disaster, something that many anti-war critics — from Robert Manne, Alan Ramsey and Phillip Adams on the left to Paul Sheehan, Owen Harries, Yours Truly on the right — had predicted.

The Baathists and Islamists were not in cahoots, yet Saddam's collapse attracted al-Qaeda fighters like flies on a dying animal. The occupation replaced a Sunni regime with a Shiite regime, setting Shiite against Sunni. In Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency against the alien occupiers, Sunnis are rising up against the Shiite-led government that the Americans left behind.

Iraqi women are more repressed than ever. Militia killings and car bombings take place almost every week. The streets of many towns are less safe today than before ''liberation''. Our great and powerful friend America paid a dear price in blood and treasure, and its reputation was tainted by the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the CIA's secret prisons. Some 2 million refugees have fled the joint.

True, George Bush's ''surge'' in 2007 bought some time to allow ''democratic'' elections to take place, but never enough time to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to try to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity.

But surely the lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy cannot be rolled out like Astroturf, and imposing it on artificial states and mediaeval societies courts danger. Nor is preventive war the right way to handle tyrants. Unlike terrorists, who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive.

If the mullahs used WMDs against US interests, the Iranian regime would meet, as academic Condi Rice put it before she joined the Bush administration, ''national obliteration'' from the US nuclear arsenal. Too bad Blair, Howard and the neo-cons have not learnt the lessons of their misbegotten venture.

Otherwise OK, as Basil Fawlty would say.

This article was originally published at The Age