The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in Iraq the past weekend to announce the handing of control of Basra province to the Iraq government. Basra handover "in two weeks" – PM read the headline of the news release in the 10 Downing Street website. One wishes the headline message would have been handover after having had accomplished the planned mission, or something along those lines. For the message sold was ‘handover’ over ‘accomplishment’. The announcement was made while addressing servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq, some of whom one should add looked not entirely at ease, but not because of his visit. They are perfectly aware of irreversible defence cuts, problems equipping them adequately throughout the Iraq campaign, the downgrading of the Minister of Defence post to a part-time job, the lack of understanding of their role in Iraq (and Afghanistan) by the public, and so on.
The Number 10 media machine sold the ‘Basra handover’ message alongside that stating Gordon Brown’s demand for the release of the five hostages, four security workers employed by GardaWorld and an IT specialist from BearingPoint, held by militias over the last six months. Because the current news traffic about the hostages is largely due to the release of a video demanding the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq by the kidnappers, the headline message sold by Number 10 was not carefully articulated, at best. Why to tie together the two messages (handover and release) all over the media? News about the hostages since the take-over on 29 May 2007 appear to have followed a pattern: deep concern expressed by the relatives, statements read by military spokespersons in Iraq, particularly American ones, followed by reactive media reports. When pressed for answers, British authorities have claimed that there has been intense work going on in the background aimed at the swift release of the hostages. However, it is only now that Gordon Brown has publicly replied to the hostages’relatives, who understandably are deeply concerned about their loved ones’ plight. This should have come earlier. It should have not been made to coincide explicitly with the handing over of control of Basra province to the Iraq government, in particular considering that withdrawal was the kidnappers demand. Clearly, Brown remarked, "The taking of hostages is completely unjustified, wholly unacceptable and we are making it clear they will not change our policy in any way”. He went on to say, "We will do everything in our power. The taking of hostages is completely unacceptable.” We will or we have been doing Prime Minister? Let’s hope the silver lining of this otherwise uncomfortable detachment of the Prime Minister’s office from the hostages’ plight until now will be the release of the Missing Five before Christmas, even if that comes at the cost of unnecessarily giving extremists grounds to claim exactly the opposite Brown stated, i.e. no change of policy in Iraq.
Some of the young men and women who were listening to the Prime Minister’s announcements will work for the private security industry one day, probably sooner than later given solid military vocation but lack of sound governmental support for the forces. It would be interesting to hear their thoughts about an equally ambivalent approach towards civilians contributing to the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
December 9, 2007