By Oliver M. Style

When President George W. Bush announced in 2003 that the United States would lead a “Coalition of the Willing” to forcefully disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, skeptics quickly pointed out that 98 percent of the so-called alliance consisted of troops from the U.S. and Britain—hardly the grand multinational armada indicative of the name.

In fact, apart from the Anglo-American contingent, none of the 48 original coalition members would ever deploy troops numbering in the tens of thousands, with only Australia, South Korea, Italy, Ukraine, Spain, and the Netherlands contributing 1,000 or more soldiers to the cause. As of Nov. 2006, 19 nations have completely withdrawn all of their respective combat forces from Iraq.

And now it seems even President Bush’s once steadfast partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is switching to the withdrawal track instead of continuing onwards to escalation in Iraq. The UK leader revealed on Feb. 21 that some 1,600 British troops would be returning from Iraq within the next few months, with hopes that a further 500 would leave by late summer. That primary departure will cut the UK military presence in the British-controlled South East zone of Iraq down to just 5,500 soldiers—a far cry from the 45,000 troops deployed during major combat operations at the start of the invasion in March 2003.

Blair, who was heartened by the recent success of Operation Sinbad, a five-month security sweep led by Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra, based his decision on the premise that “It is important to show, and show particularly the Iraqi people, that we do not desire our forces to remain any longer than they are needed…”

The prime minister’s declaration is a tremendous step forward in terms of marking a beginning of the end for British involvement in Iraq. True, it does not indicate an immediate termination of combat operations, nor does it mean that Iraqi security forces will have an easy time transitioning to a lead role in stabilizing their own country. It does, however, reflect a psychological component that just might emphasize the right thing: it’s time to get out of Iraq.

Yet the Brits’ plan stands in stark opposition to the recently announced surge of more than 21,000 U.S. troops in the Baghdad area and a reluctance by the Bush administration to set even a tentative timetable for withdrawal.

The contrasting decisions reveal something that should worry the American people—not to mention the rest of the world—immeasurably: the current president of the United States is unresponsive. He is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the tide of American opinion has turned against the Iraq war. It was only last week that the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to denounce Mr. Bush’s new strategy—one that ignores the advice of the recently dissolved bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

This past Tuesday saw an additional three U.S. soldiers killed by a roadside bomb, raising the number of confirmed American military deaths to 3,161—a number that will undoubtedly increase by the time this story comes to print.

If the president wants to salvage what little hope for success there still remains for Iraq, he will realize that, far from being “a policy of retreat” his vice president so detests, a plan to implement some sort of phased troop withdrawal will send the right signal to the Iraqi government that the country’s national security will eventually become their own responsibility.

It is an idea his ally Tony Blair quite possibly embraced some time ago.