There is no reason for Britain to go to war

This is the year when Britons may be asked by their Government to go to war. Iraq is said to pose a threat so gross as to demand the ultimate sanction of “defensive aggression”. So said Tony Blair again yesterday.

I have pondered these words a dozen times and still find them unreal.

Let us tread carefully. Exactly a year ago I was puzzling over a different war, in Afghanistan. That war had been presented as the only way to bring Osama bin Laden to justice after September 11. I thought it was a mistake. At a time when the whole Arab world was sympathetic to America — Yassir Arafat was giving blood for New York — I was convinced by those who knew Afghanistan well that the best way of capturing bin Laden was through the Saudis and their friends, the Taleban. Exploit the sympathy. Put on the big squeeze and sooner or later bin Laden would be popped.

That proved a politically unrealistic response to September 11. The Saudis were ignored and the Taleban were toppled. The Afghans were freed from an oppressor, but bin Laden was not found and his al-Qaeda dispersed. Its operatives are said to be on the loose and anti-Americanism is on the rampage. But there was a sort of “victory”. Someone had been punished for harbouring bin Laden.

This past year we have learnt that combating terrorism is the same messy, hit-and-miss business it has always been. Each weekend Downing Street and its “terrorism unit” summons the press for the Sunday scare story. We have now had the Nine-Eleven anniversary scare, the sarin-on-the-Tube scare, the smallpox scare, the “threat to public transport” scare, the Christmas shopping scare and last Sunday’s “London quarantine” scare. (Note, these stories always appear on a Sunday.) They offer no useable public advice. They are pure heebie- jeebie.

Despite the terrorising of American and British citizens by their Governments in this way, there is no apparent evidence that they are any more at risk than they have always been. For a quarter century, planes have been downed, bombs exploded and innocents killed. Baader Meinhof, Carlos the Jackal, the PLO, the Red Brigades, the IRA, killed and maimed their way across the 1970s and 1980s. All Europe has learnt to live with varying degrees of civil violence and political terror.

It is always possible that a fanatic is at this moment planning a new outrage. But there has been no repeat as uniquely dreadful as was September 11. The most serious attack, in Bali, was an old-fashioned car bomb. Other incidents may have been stopped by good detection and good luck. Given the level of defence expenditure, we are entitled to expect both. George Bush was right after September 11 to say that combating terrorism was “for ever”. But so should normal life be for ever.

What has this to do with Iraq? Nothing, unless Saddam is driven into the most desperate of corners. A year ago the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan, India, Iran and North Korea were a source of concern. Iraq was being contained by “smart sanctions” and the simple device of bombing, devastatingly in 1998. A year ago British ministers firmly asserted that there was no question of Britain joining what at the time seemed a madcap Pentagon plan for a war on Iraq. Containment was working. Al-Qaeda was still the target.

A year is an age in politics. Last October the Government pronounced a U-turn and said that containment was not working after all. One billion pounds is now available to fight the resulting war. The Government lobbied in Washington for Colin Powell to stay the Pentagon’s hand while weapons inspectors returned to work. But Britain continues to prepare for war and claim that it would be justified “to disarm Saddam”, presumably of the paltry weapons listed in the October document, without explicit UN authorisation.

The Government’s brinkmanship appears to be heading for a dead end. If Saddam can be proved to have nasty weapons, it means war. If this cannot be proved, then he must be a cunning liar, and that means war. If the United Nations fails to follow this logic, it will be disregarded and that means war. On this, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, could not have been clearer before Christmas. Yet there is still no evidence of any changed threat from Iraq towards the West. The only real change has been in the threat of the West towards Iraq.

Let us now stop and consider. There may be good reasons for the West’s shift. Last summer’s new global strategy from Washington argued that a world with just one superpower required it to be a more assertive policeman. September 11 had opened a political window of opportunity in America, reversing the isolationism once espoused by George W. Bush. By implication, the United Nations was too indecisive and institutions of international law as yet too immature. America was the sanction of last resort. Sometimes it should have the courage to be the sanction of first resort.

I do not find this position inherently wrong. Of all the “paxes” the world has been offered in history, Pax Americana is to be preferred. Its imperium is that of humanity’s most successful melting pot, by most standards democratic, enterprising and free. After its lead role in the three great confrontations of the 20th century, America has won its spurs. Yes, it would be wise to seek the support of the world community for its constabulary duties. But there may be times when that support is not forthcoming, and the duties required nonetheless.

These duties must imply a capacity for war. The Italian writer Umberto Eco, in his Essay on War, pleaded that “hot war” should by now be as taboo as incest. In future, he said, conflict should be cold, conducted by ceaseless negotiation and argument. Clausewitz should be reversed and politics become the pursuit of “war by other means”. I regard this as a cop-out. Policing implies the threat of sanction and sanction implied its occasional activation. The Vietnam, Falklands and Gulf wars were all fought in a wider cause than that of national self-defence. All of them, to my mind, had “just cause”.

Iraq at present is not in this category. It is not attacking or threatening a foreign state, though it must be perilously close to having “just cause” for self-defence. Britain’s national security or political stability is not realistically in danger, however much Downing Street may try to scare us witless each week. Iraq is a nasty place and military planners must have contingencies. But to no one can Iraq be said to pose a sovereign threat sufficient to require a pre-emptive war.

That is not necessarily the end of the matter. What is ironic is that the best argument for an attack on Saddam is precisely the one against which the British and American Governments are trying to guard their flank. Iraq appears to have broken the UN’s rules on what constitutes a legitimate arsenal for self-defence. Recent evidence from North Korea and Iran shows that these rules are highly important. Even if Iraq’s breach can be dismissed as relatively harmless, supranational authority must be enforced. The hiding and cheating must end or such rules become worthless. A man may deny his intention to use his unlicensed machinegun, but he will go to jail if he persistently will not surrender it.

These rules are United Nations rules, not American rules. It is the UN’s authority which Saddam flouts. The purpose of any conflict would be to uphold that authority. If the rules are seen as merely a subset of American foreign policy, obedience to them will seem no more than obedience to America. The UN’s authority will be doubly undermined.

If the UN is to authorise an attack on Iraq, it must be satisfied that its rules really are broken. It must know that Saddam is building up his nuclear and other arsenals. It must have intelligence from whatever source to show the world, especially the Arab world, that he continues to be a cheat and a menace. The UN must accept that containment has failed and that no means short of military conquest can achieve enforcement.

As Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, said yesterday, these conditions are not yet met — not by a mile. It is possible that they could be met. But unless they are, Saddam Hussein has broken no peace.

There is no cause for Britain to go to war with Iraq