Bin Laden's laughter echoes across the West

As of tomorrow, Britain will be at war with an Arab country that offers no threat to it or to anyone. British troops will be fighting an action which the UN would have declared unlawful if asked. Now we can only hope they win fast.

Yesterday the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made one of the most impressive speeches in defence of foreign intervention I can recall. He gathered into his oratorical grasp September 11, al-Qaeda, Hitler, President Saddam Hussein and the deterrence of dictators in general. He admitted that the link between all these was “loose”. But he was in full flight. He seemed galvanised by terrorism, mesmerised by weapons of mass destruction, obsessed with any and every chemical and biological threat. As for Iraq, the country was simply not to be tolerated. This was not the fireside-chat Mr Blair. It was the full Churchillian rig.

Mr Blair said he respected those who disagreed with him, but with little conviction. He demanded that all who believed in Iraqi weapons inspection should now admit it had failed, and that failure required war. His passion outstripped common sense. Inspection may not be perfect, but in the eyes of the world it has not failed so completely as to require Monday’s eviction of the inspectors. Yes, troops on the border instilled Iraqi compliance, but why not let them? The French position may be absurd — “no authority for any war any time” — but French absurdity does not validate war now.

For all his references to terrorism and September 11, Mr Blair has been starkly unable to establish Saddam as a terrorist threat. He may have been exasperated by the UN Security Council’s refusal to cow before his friends in Washington, but the fact is that despite fierce armtwisting it did not cow. One reason was sheer American ineptitude in daily deriding the UN, its inspectors and anyone seeking peaceful disarmament. This swung world opinion against the much-desired “second resolution”, boosting Saddam and undermining Mr Blair.

This destroyed the two pro-American coalitions forged after September 11, 2001 and again before last autumn’s Resolution 1441. Both were real achievements of British diplomacy, and Washington’s hamfisted wrecking of them will rank among the fiascos of international relations. Small wonder Mr Blair shuddered after condemning France when a backbencher referred to America’s 75 vetoes on Middle East resolutions. Washington received hardly a mention in his speech. This was suddenly a very British war.

UN backing for a war was perfectly possible with tact and with time. It received neither. Instead the hapless Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, was rushed forward on Monday to refute almost all legal opinion and invent an eccentric interplay between resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 to deny the fact that last year’s coalition was forged on the explicit understanding that war was for the Security Council to determine. Knowing America’s intent, the Government would have been more honest to leave the UN in the gutter from the start. Instead it is sustained only on the broken-backed morality of Clare Short.

The truth of this war emerged in Mr Blair’s most significant aside. He referred to Europe still needing to grasp the “psychological change” in America’s outlook since September 11. What he meant was that without it there would be no war. Yet he could not analyse the meaning of that change. The terrorist has been with us always, as have his bombs, agents, gases and plagues. What is eerily elusive is the true author of this new mayhem. Saddam is a mere proxy. As Mr Blair tacitly acknowledged, this is another bin Laden war.

Osama bin Laden hovers over events in the Gulf as he hovered over Mr Blair’s dispatch box. History will surely rate this stateless psychopath as potent beyond all imaginings. He did not just kill 3,000 people. His single act entered so deep into US psychology as to traumatise its sense of security and well-being. He devastated the economy of a city, New York, and a whole country. He turned Americans in on themselves, fortifying their houses, buying gas masks, fearing dark-skinned foreigners and screaming at the sight of powder. He bankrupted their airline companies. He emptied their office blocks. He made them suspend habeas corpus.

Bin Laden incited one war, of America against Afghanistan. He licensed another, the revived Palestinian suicide intifada and thus Israeli retaliation. He fuelled fundamentalist dissent in Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey. He made every American and Briton in the Middle East fear for his life.

Then early last year the unthinkable became thought, an all-out American war on the quiescent Saddam lest he “might” form an alliance with the Scarlet Pimpernel bin Laden. By an act of psychological transference, fear of bin Laden became fear of Iraq. Washington and London suddenly found themselves expecting attack from bin Laden and, by proxy, Saddam. Tanks raced back and forth to airports. Bunkers were built. Tourists were driven to stay at home. War became a matter of “self-defence”.

Britain and America have now allowed bin Laden to goad them to a conflict that has divided the West more fiercely than the Soviet Union ever did during the Cold War. Bin Laden has split Europe. He has reawakened “ugly American” diplomacy and reopened wounds between the New World and the Old. He has split Europe from America. He has split Russia from America. He has divided America within itself. He has made Iraq’s old friend, Jacques Chirac, a domestic hero unparalleled since de Gaulle.

Bin Laden has left Nato inert as an alliance supposedly under threat. He has destroyed, possibly for ever, the ambition of a common European Union foreign and defence policy. He has also destroyed Tony Blair’s dream of one day leading it. He induced the British to treat the UN first as a validator of war, then as a disposable comfort blanket.

Nor is that all. Nothing can be giving bin Laden greater pleasure than the spectacle of the West going to war to topple his hated foe, the “atheist Satan”, Saddam Hussein. Even in his wildest dreams, he cannot have imagined what has now come to pass, Saddam about to go and Islam radicalised against the West.

In truth we all let this happen. We all capitulated to the terror of September 11. We all stayed at home, sold shares and bought gas masks. We let politicians pass repressive laws and peddle mendacious dossiers. We showed democracy vulnerable to attack and capitalism frighteningly so. Eventually diplomacy could not hold back the tide of vengeance. First in Afghanistan, now in Iraq, it threw in the towel and left soldiers to do their worst.

It is a poor comment on the civilised West in the 21st century that its chief means of retaliation against terrorism is a declaration of war on whole peoples. I wondered if Mr Blair would yesterday resist the Hitler parallel. Sadly he could not. This is to be another war of analogies. Saddam’s arsenals are Hitler’s Holocaust. One day Mr Blair’s successors will doubtless cite September 11 as the basis for some new curb on civil liberties and free speech.

I cheered the Falklands task force. I cheered the eviction of Saddam from Kuwait. I backed ground troops in Kosovo (though not the bombing) to stop, too late, a patent humanitarian disaster. I thought the war on Kabul foolish because it would make harder the location and elimination of bin Laden, as it did. This new Gulf war, at this time and in this context, falls into none of these categories. The catalyst is a state of mind to which one madman has reduced half the free world.

Now Pandora’s box creaks open once again and out will jump the miseries, distempers and demons of war. We should remember what the ingenious Greeks left at the bottom of that box, a mistress called Hope. She did not escape. She remained “to assuage the lot of man”.

Hope now pleads for a quick victory. Hope pleads for no gratuitous bombing. Hope craves a swift rebuilding of Iraq. Hope prays for the Palestine “road map” to be sincere. Hope longs for the UN to pick itself up and play a full role in a reconstructed Middle East. Hope wants this war to purge once and for all America’s September 11 trauma and rejoin the world community. Hope believes in America as a force for good in the world. Hope wants this war turned to good account.

Hope hates the sound of bin Laden laughing.