How to lose friends and offend people
By Max Hastings
Supporters of war with Iraq attribute international hostility to either pacifism or visceral anti-Americanism. It seems more just, however, to blame the stunning diplomatic failure by the Bush Administration. For once, there is a valid historical comparison. Never since Suez has a great nation blundered so disastrously in attempting to justify the use of force before the world. A British diplomat observed to me that following American representatives around the world requires an enormous dustpan and brush to clear up the mess.
The last straw was Mr Bush's belated promise on Friday to unveil a new Middle-East peace plan. For months, the British Government has been beseeching Washington to make some gesture about Israel and the Palestinians. Bush's failure to offer even token linkage between war on Iraq and firmness towards Israel has represented a gaping hole in the American case. Yet who can take seriously a bone now thrown so carelessly to a sceptical world, on the eve of war?
Some of us have always argued that this is not a crisis about handling Iraq - it is about how the rest of the world manages the US. Our only superpower possesses the means to impose its will anywhere, without military aid from anyone. It is vital that allies should dissuade the US from pursuing a unilateral foreign policy, which is why I, for one, reluctantly support British participation in the war.
To maintain our engagement with the United States, however, even allies need some assistance from the government of the US. Tony Blair achieved a notable success in persuading Bush to go to the UN before attacking Iraq, much against the president's own instincts. But the Administration fatally damaged its own prospects of UN support at the outset, by making plain that its countdown to war had begun, and that no vote on earth would stop it. This was an irresistible invitation for others, notably the French, to throw the toys out of the pram.
Mr Bush and his colleagues have casually insulted half the globe. A British official recalls a recent speech by a member of the Administration in which he said that Russia's economic importance is on a par with Denmark. "How do you expect the Russians to take that?", said my friend. Moscow's fallen power makes its rulers doubly sensitive to slights.
Effective diplomacy requires give-and-take. The White House constantly asserts its gratitude for British support. Yet there is no shred of evidence of Washington's goodwill. Across a range of diplomatic and trade issues on the table between Britain and the US, Washington agencies talk as toughly to the British as they do to the French.
Donald Rumsfeld's remarks last week about America's willingness to fight without Britain may have been intended as a statement of the obvious, but could only be interpreted as a snub. Mr Rumsfeld is a statesman comparable in style, if not in beliefs, to our own dear John Prescott. Watching him in diplomatic action reminds one of an elephant taking a stroll in a Japanese bonsai garden.
Where Washington has offered inducements for support, they have been of the crudest kind. It seemed breathtaking, that in return for basing rights in Turkey, Bush was willing to allow Turkish troops to deploy in Kurdistan, when the Turks have an appalling historic record of brutality to the Kurds. The offer implied almost reckless indifference to the interests of people the US is allegedly committed to protect.
Most serious of all, of course, is the gulf between America's declared reason for going to war, and its real one. Few serious strategists, intelligence officers or diplomats regard Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as anything like as grave a threat to international security as those of North Korea. Pakistan - almost everywhere except in the person of its president - has closer links with al-Qaeda than Iraq.
The US is going to attack Iraq because it is militarily feasible to do so, and because Mr Bush has been committed to imposing regime change there since he took office. There is a further, more petulant motive, which has strengthened as world opposition has mounted: Washington is determined to show its power, its refusal to be deflected by international opinion from the course it has adopted in support of its own interests.
Why should the rest of the world be impressed by arguments about Iraqi disarmament, when Mr Bush makes no serious pretence that this is his real justification for war ?
We must hope that any war will end swiftly, and at tolerable cost, in American and British victory. The world will be a marginally better place without Saddam. But once the shooting has stopped, years of global crisis lie ahead, unless the US relearns how to conduct diplomacy. Sooner or later, the US will have to recognise that it needs allies, that it must treat the world with some show of respect which has been utterly lacking since the Iraqi crisis began. Mr Bush has achieved the near-impossible, by creating an international constituency for Saddam. Heaven help us; if he persists with his doctrine of the rightness of might after capturing Baghdad, he could build a coalition in support of Kim Jong Il.