9/11: The Aftermath  -  Imminent War in Iraq                                                                                                                      

Last Monday George W Bush was speaking at the first Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland.  The occasion was a tribute to the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.  Given his current bellicose intentions towards Iraq, I wonder how the American president contrived to align himself with the hero of peaceful protest.  What words could he have found that wouldn't sound like cruel pastiche?  I have a nightmare? And it is one inside which the entire world may find itself living come next spring?

Certainly, the circumstances of the present dread, which is giving the nation night sweats, have all the fearful sense of inescapability and the weird illogicality of bad dreams. War seems to have been decided on but it hasn't been declared.  Is there a difference?  If, as Jack Straw said in Washington last Thursday, war isn't inevitable and there is still time for Iraq to avoid it, why are all those American and British forces massing round the Gulf?  Such an expensively huge military presence more or less demands to be validated by action.  Simply to dissolve it would turn its having been there into a historic folly.

On the other hand, when you consider the double - and triple - think behind its deployment, sending it into war looks like an even bigger folly.  The UN inspectors gained access to Iraq's stores of weaponry to discover whether there was sufficient evidence to merit military action against Saddam Hussein.  Some incriminating empty casings have been found.  If nothing more reveals itself, it is possible for the UN to decide that the discovery of a gun which is not only not smoking but not even loaded hardly justifies retaliatory fire.  But that won't matter.  Tony Blair has already said that the UN will have no veto over military action.

If those are the terms, you have to wonder what role America and Britain saw the UN as having in all of this.  Not a serious one, obviously.  It wasn't to be employed as some impartial investigator, a kind of political Interpol.  It was hired to get hold of the evidence that was needed to justify a judgement already made, like a seedy gumshoe.  Find what we need or you're fired.  It was not so much a case of consulting the UN as of insulting it.

Of course, the utter bad faith of Saddam Hussein has already been proven beyond doubt.  You couldn't trust him to tell the truth to his mirror.  But does that justify meeting his bad faith with your own?  An unprovable conviction is hardly a basis for undertaking a military campaign which has global implications.  If, for example, Saddam doesn't have the present capability to deploy nuclear weapons, which seems probable, you can hardly demand that he demonstrate it definitively.  How do you furnish evidence of the non­existent?

You may remain convinced that the intention is there but belief in unfulfilled intention wouldn't hold up in a case of shoplifting let alone in a matter as grave as this, involving the destabilisation of a large country and creating a fissure in international understanding that could run around the world till it splits in two.  At the very least, I would have thought, the continuing absence of conclusive proof could give the UN time to extend its examination of Iraq's military resources, applying even more strict criteria.  It could also give America and Britain the time to try to persuade the sceptical countries in the UN of the urgent necessity to bring down the Iraqi regime.  If Saddam hasn't developed nuclear capability as yet, he certainly won't be developing it while the inspectors are in his country and he is the focus of attention throughout the globe.

But what should be a breathing-space for mature tactical reflection, and a chance to canvas something close to solidarity in the UN with reasoned debate, is being used for jingoistic push-ups and the display of enough military muscle on the borders of Iraq to make it look like the political equivalent of a Mr Universe contest.  Britain and America’s special relationship isn't seriously interested in what anybody else thinks, unless they agree with them.

Tony Blair hasn't even condescended to debate seriously a decision with cataclysmic consequences among the members of his own parliament.  After all, they just represent the British people.  He's the government.  Donald Rumsfeld, graduate of the Howitzer School of Diplomacy, has dismissed the understandable misgivings of Germany and France as just "old Europe'" talking.  No wonder Roselyne Bachelot, the French environment minister, has delicately defined Rumsfeld's contribution as "Cambronne's word", which translates simply as "shit".

Alienating your allies, not to mention a large part of your own population, is a strange way to begin a war.  It suggests an outraged impatience that can't tolerate any quibbling delays to the fulfilment of itself.  Outrage at the monstrosity of Saddam's regime is unavoidable and impatience with his prevarications is understandable.  But outrage doesn't constitute tactics and impatience is not a policy.  They are feelings which generate action that is usually blind to the complexity of its own consequences.  They don't evolve a decision from a process of careful reasoning, they create a decision and then rationalise from it. 

I think this is what is happening with the imminent war against Iraq.  The giveaway is not that there is no reason for the war but there are too many reasons, and none of them is uniquely specific to Iraq.

Why Iraq and why Iraq at this precise time?  If the reason is the danger of nuclear capability in dangerous hands, then North Korea is a more obvious threat.  If the reason is the need to engage with the growing threat of terrorism, Algeria offers a much more pressing case for our attention.  If the reason is the desire of democratic countries to abolish a brutally oppressive and tyrannical regime, what roll of the dice determined we should start with Iraq?  We have many to choose from and with a lot of them Western countries are quite happy to do business, as long as the business pays.

Too many reasons spoil the logic and tend to be used to obscure the lack of a single overwhelming justification.  There isn't one for an immediate strike against Iraq.

But there is an overwhelming reason against it, besides the deaths of innocent people who didn't choose the dictatorship under which they live. The reason is that such a war will not help to contain terrorism but will help to disseminate it through Western countries which have immigration systems as watertight as a paper umbrella.  It will radicalise the darker edges of Islam further, and that's a lot of darkness.  Containing terrorism by attacking Iraq at the moment is about as cunning as trying to defuse a bomb by hitting it with a hammer.


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com                                                                    © William McIlvanney