Opinion

March 05, 2003

Clare Short, ally of the 'post-heroic strategists'

Each morning I ponder the state of Clare Short’s conscience. Tony Blair needs Clare Short as much as George Bush needs Tony Blair. If she were to defect from the war party, Mr Blair would be in deep trouble. If Mr Blair is in deep trouble, then Mr Bush is as well. So this Ms Short is one powerful lady. Each morning the world gathers round her conscience like physicians round the bed of George III? How does it fare?

Ms Short’s conscience is new Labour’s smart bomb. In the good old days it was targeted on nuclear disarmament and troops out of Northern Ireland. It resigned from Labour’s front bench over the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Gulf War. Since its owner accepted Cabinet office its guidance system has gone corkscrew. It jolted into accepting Polaris, staying in Northern Ireland, enforcing draconian terrorism laws and regarding Gulf wars as good. I shall not forget its shrill claim in 1999 that Serb civilians, especially journalists, were “legitimate targets” for bombers.

In 1997 the newly appointed Ms Short cashed in on Dianamania by donning a mine-clearing suit at a Labour Party conference. She championed the Ottawa Treaty against landmines. Her conscience then went haywire again. In Cabinet it approved the dropping of delayed-action cluster bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq. When challenged that these weapons were de facto landmines, she pleaded that they had been “cleared by the Law Officers of the Crown”.

So how is Ms Short’s conscience this week? She is a full Cabinet member and knows well what is being planned in her name. It is called Operation Shock and Awe, openly described in the American media as the impending “blitz on Baghdad”. Pentagon sources revealed that two weeks ago the commanders in the Gulf had upped their Days One and Two requirement from 500 cruise missiles to 800. Assuming Ms Short’s conscience was easy at 500, how is it at 800? Nor is there any nonsense about self-restraint. CBS News quoted the Pentagon as promising “there will not be a safe place in Baghdad”. The goal is simply “the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight”.

This is Dresden talk. Eight hundred cruise missiles in 48 hours to destroy “the enemy’s will to fight” takes us back to Bomber Harris. At this point any decent citizen must ask what is going through the mind of Britain’s Cabinet. This is not a smart war with the limited objective of finding and destroying Iraq’s arsenals. It is total war, all gloves off, against an entire people. And it appears to have begun.

Officials in the office of the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, recently claimed that the proposed bombing offers “very little chance of injury to civilian or non-military targets”. How can they say this? Mr Hoon is using weapons of known degrees of inaccuracy against electricity plants, barracks and supply dumps in the cities of Basra and Baghdad. He intends to disable power, water and sanitation and anything considered “dual use”.

The Pentagon is more candid than the British in these matters, or at least the American media are more searching. Official estimates are that roughly half the weapons dropped on Iraq in the past ten years missed their “primary aimpoints”. In one raid in February 2001, 26 out of 28 of the latest “smart” joint stand-off weapons missed their aimpoints.

The British Cabinet, including Ms Short, must approve these weapons. It must also approve the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs. There is so far no sign of Britain honouring the international plea for a global moratorium on their use. Now euphemised as “stand-off area munitions”, they are dreadful at the best of times. But between 5 and 10 per cent of their canisters fail to explode.

Whereas an anti-personnel landmine, disowned by all but the Americans under the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, blows off only bits of the body, a single cluster bomblet disintegrates anyone within 100ft. Each CBU87 cluster bomb leaves, on average, ten such bomblets unexploded in the ground. Unlike most minefields, they are also unmapped. How that is not a landmine is a secret known only to Ms Short’s conscience.

The real paradox is that the more one-sided “moral” war becomes, the less that side feels obliged to respect war’s moral disciplines. It is because America and Britain are certain of victory that they increasingly disregard the constraints that once underpinned battlefield behaviour. When winning is certain and almost all killing is done from the air, the overriding priority of the “post-heroic strategist” is to minimise casualties on his own side, at whatever cost in money, destruction or non-combatant deaths.

This priority is plainly rewriting morality out of the rules of war. Already the past year has seen Western states disregard the Geneva, Hague and Ottawa conventions, suspend habeas corpus, breach state sovereignty, authorise extrajudicial killing, abandon non-combatant immunity and abuse the doctrine of proportionate force. We use the concept of war crime only when it suits us. We are partial in our appeal to international law. President Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden may want to lead us back down the road to barbarism. We need not go so happily with them.

I have always accepted that Saddam might have to be stopped from developing offensive arsenals. I have no particular fixation that this should be via the UN, except that at present UN Resolution 1441 is the world’s chosen path. A pre-emptive attack on Saddam could have been justified in the 1980s, when he was using chemical weapons and really was preparing a nuclear bomb. That justification is weaker now than it was then. Saddam is not a threat as al-Qaeda was and is said to be. Diplomacy has plainly not reached its last resort.

Even if it had, that cannot suspend debate on how war should be conducted. Bombing cities has, for half a century, been considered abhorrent. Anyone who wants to know why should read W. G. Sebald’s new book, The Natural History of Destruction. They should read it before despising Germans for refusing to join in the bombing of Baghdad. This is not just because history shows that urban bombing achieves pathetically limited military gain. It is because such traumatic assaults on civil targets are considered wrong, a word much in Mr Blair’s lexicon these day.

Even in the theatre of war, moral considerations are entitled to a cameo role. It cannot be right to tear up every rulebook in fighting terrorism, just because bin Laden did. It cannot be right to cluster-bomb Iraqis just because Saddam did likewise. It cannot be right to use a weapon of mass destruction — 800 cruise missiles on Baghdad in 48 hours — because that is what Saddam “might do” if we do not get him first. The US Government, with British support, is behaving as if sheer power absolved states of the need to pose these questions.

I hear no plea for the slightest restraint from those vociferously in favour of this war. Some of them seem to crave the impending destruction, regarding Saddam as a spoilsport for even appearing to disarm. Others are embarrassed by the question, as if it were indelicate to discuss war in terms of smashed buildings and torn bodies. They feebly remark that soldiers cannot be told to show restraint.

Soldiers have been told that throughout history. They are told it in Northern Ireland. They were told not to bomb Argentina during the Falklands war. The West asked the Russians to “show restraint” in Chechnya. It was, to their credit, the Americans who questioned the morality of Harris’s civilian bombing during the war. That bombing, like Hiroshima, was at least a last resort. The massive onslaught of Operation Shock and Awe is not to be the last resort of this war. It is to be the first.

Some things in politics are beyond irony. This month the erstwhile conscience of the Left, Clare Short, finds herself a crucial moral prop to those she once despised as the militarist-imperialist American Right. Now in their hour of need, she is suddenly by their side.

I repeat, how long can she stand it? This war is a moral issue, as Mr Blair keeps saying, but so too is the manner of its waging. Eight hundred cruise missiles and delayedaction cluster bombs have moral import. So does the blitz of Baghdad. It is not often in history that a politician can claim her conscience has the power to move men and mountains. For a brief moment, Ms Short can.

sjenkins@thetimes.co.uk

March 05, 2003

Clare Short, ally of the 'post-heroic strategists'

Each morning I ponder the state of Clare Short’s conscience. Tony Blair needs Clare Short as much as George Bush needs Tony Blair. If she were to defect from the war party, Mr Blair would be in deep trouble. If Mr Blair is in deep trouble, then Mr Bush is as well. So this Ms Short is one powerful lady. Each morning the world gathers round her conscience like physicians round the bed of George III? How does it fare?

Ms Short’s conscience is new Labour’s smart bomb. In the good old days it was targeted on nuclear disarmament and troops out of Northern Ireland. It resigned from Labour’s front bench over the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Gulf War. Since its owner accepted Cabinet office its guidance system has gone corkscrew. It jolted into accepting Polaris, staying in Northern Ireland, enforcing draconian terrorism laws and regarding Gulf wars as good. I shall not forget its shrill claim in 1999 that Serb civilians, especially journalists, were “legitimate targets” for bombers.

In 1997 the newly appointed Ms Short cashed in on Dianamania by donning a mine-clearing suit at a Labour Party conference. She championed the Ottawa Treaty against landmines. Her conscience then went haywire again. In Cabinet it approved the dropping of delayed-action cluster bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq. When challenged that these weapons were de facto landmines, she pleaded that they had been “cleared by the Law Officers of the Crown”.

So how is Ms Short’s conscience this week? She is a full Cabinet member and knows well what is being planned in her name. It is called Operation Shock and Awe, openly described in the American media as the impending “blitz on Baghdad”. Pentagon sources revealed that two weeks ago the commanders in the Gulf had upped their Days One and Two requirement from 500 cruise missiles to 800. Assuming Ms Short’s conscience was easy at 500, how is it at 800? Nor is there any nonsense about self-restraint. CBS News quoted the Pentagon as promising “there will not be a safe place in Baghdad”. The goal is simply “the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight”.

This is Dresden talk. Eight hundred cruise missiles in 48 hours to destroy “the enemy’s will to fight” takes us back to Bomber Harris. At this point any decent citizen must ask what is going through the mind of Britain’s Cabinet. This is not a smart war with the limited objective of finding and destroying Iraq’s arsenals. It is total war, all gloves off, against an entire people. And it appears to have begun.

Officials in the office of the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, recently claimed that the proposed bombing offers “very little chance of injury to civilian or non-military targets”. How can they say this? Mr Hoon is using weapons of known degrees of inaccuracy against electricity plants, barracks and supply dumps in the cities of Basra and Baghdad. He intends to disable power, water and sanitation and anything considered “dual use”.

The Pentagon is more candid than the British in these matters, or at least the American media are more searching. Official estimates are that roughly half the weapons dropped on Iraq in the past ten years missed their “primary aimpoints”. In one raid in February 2001, 26 out of 28 of the latest “smart” joint stand-off weapons missed their aimpoints.

The British Cabinet, including Ms Short, must approve these weapons. It must also approve the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs. There is so far no sign of Britain honouring the international plea for a global moratorium on their use. Now euphemised as “stand-off area munitions”, they are dreadful at the best of times. But between 5 and 10 per cent of their canisters fail to explode.

Whereas an anti-personnel landmine, disowned by all but the Americans under the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, blows off only bits of the body, a single cluster bomblet disintegrates anyone within 100ft. Each CBU87 cluster bomb leaves, on average, ten such bomblets unexploded in the ground. Unlike most minefields, they are also unmapped. How that is not a landmine is a secret known only to Ms Short’s conscience.

The real paradox is that the more one-sided “moral” war becomes, the less that side feels obliged to respect war’s moral disciplines. It is because America and Britain are certain of victory that they increasingly disregard the constraints that once underpinned battlefield behaviour. When winning is certain and almost all killing is done from the air, the overriding priority of the “post-heroic strategist” is to minimise casualties on his own side, at whatever cost in money, destruction or non-combatant deaths.

This priority is plainly rewriting morality out of the rules of war. Already the past year has seen Western states disregard the Geneva, Hague and Ottawa conventions, suspend habeas corpus, breach state sovereignty, authorise extrajudicial killing, abandon non-combatant immunity and abuse the doctrine of proportionate force. We use the concept of war crime only when it suits us. We are partial in our appeal to international law. President Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden may want to lead us back down the road to barbarism. We need not go so happily with them.

I have always accepted that Saddam might have to be stopped from developing offensive arsenals. I have no particular fixation that this should be via the UN, except that at present UN Resolution 1441 is the world’s chosen path. A pre-emptive attack on Saddam could have been justified in the 1980s, when he was using chemical weapons and really was preparing a nuclear bomb. That justification is weaker now than it was then. Saddam is not a threat as al-Qaeda was and is said to be. Diplomacy has plainly not reached its last resort.

Even if it had, that cannot suspend debate on how war should be conducted. Bombing cities has, for half a century, been considered abhorrent. Anyone who wants to know why should read W. G. Sebald’s new book, The Natural History of Destruction. They should read it before despising Germans for refusing to join in the bombing of Baghdad. This is not just because history shows that urban bombing achieves pathetically limited military gain. It is because such traumatic assaults on civil targets are considered wrong, a word much in Mr Blair’s lexicon these day.

Even in the theatre of war, moral considerations are entitled to a cameo role. It cannot be right to tear up every rulebook in fighting terrorism, just because bin Laden did. It cannot be right to cluster-bomb Iraqis just because Saddam did likewise. It cannot be right to use a weapon of mass destruction — 800 cruise missiles on Baghdad in 48 hours — because that is what Saddam “might do” if we do not get him first. The US Government, with British support, is behaving as if sheer power absolved states of the need to pose these questions.

I hear no plea for the slightest restraint from those vociferously in favour of this war. Some of them seem to crave the impending destruction, regarding Saddam as a spoilsport for even appearing to disarm. Others are embarrassed by the question, as if it were indelicate to discuss war in terms of smashed buildings and torn bodies. They feebly remark that soldiers cannot be told to show restraint.

Soldiers have been told that throughout history. They are told it in Northern Ireland. They were told not to bomb Argentina during the Falklands war. The West asked the Russians to “show restraint” in Chechnya. It was, to their credit, the Americans who questioned the morality of Harris’s civilian bombing during the war. That bombing, like Hiroshima, was at least a last resort. The massive onslaught of Operation Shock and Awe is not to be the last resort of this war. It is to be the first.

Some things in politics are beyond irony. This month the erstwhile conscience of the Left, Clare Short, finds herself a crucial moral prop to those she once despised as the militarist-imperialist American Right. Now in their hour of need, she is suddenly by their side.

I repeat, how long can she stand it? This war is a moral issue, as Mr Blair keeps saying, but so too is the manner of its waging. Eight hundred cruise missiles and delayedaction cluster bombs have moral import. So does the blitz of Baghdad. It is not often in history that a politician can claim her conscience has the power to move men and mountains. For a brief moment, Ms Short can.

sjenkins@thetimes.co.uk