Why Blair and Bush must have our fullest support

By Charles Powell

The Prime Minister yesterday showed the same mettle as his predecessors at turning points in the Second World War, the launch of the Falklands campaign and the Gulf war. Britain’s interests are directly threatened by Saddam Hussein’s ruthless determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction. So is the standing and authority of the United Nations.

When we went to war with Iraq in 1991 we had clear intelligence that Saddam was worryingly close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Although sanctions and inspections have since hampered his efforts, they have not slackened. Even if he is not yet able to construct a full nuclear weapon, the risk of his acquiring the material to make radioactive dispersal devices remains high. The danger is greater than most of us imagine, as Downing Street’s dossier makes clear, even though it could not be too explicit and detailed: it is vital to protect intelligence sources and not let Saddam know exactly what we know. Otherwise he will simply take further steps to conceal his activities.

President Bush is moving with deliberation. First, he is seeking the return of the weapons inspectors, though only if they have full access and all weapons of mass destruction and the materials to make them will be destroyed. That is what Saddam promised 11 years ago but has consistently thwarted and evaded. Second, he is working through the UN Security Council, even though further UN endorsement of military action is not strictly necessary, because earlier Security Council resolutions still apply and the use of force was only “suspended” in 1991.

Third, he is working to build an international coalition to support military action. He should not pay a price for that support by wavering over the elimination of the threat to our security and that of the Middle East from Saddam. The UN’s choice is between enforcing its own decisions or showing that it has no more teeth than the League of Nations had.

Iraq’s offer to allow the unconditional return of the inspectors is Saddam’s last attempt to divide the emerging consensus against Iraq at the UN and head off military action. All experience of Saddam teaches us that “unconditional” means the opposite: haggling will start, once inspectors get to Iraq, with the aim of hampering their work. The worst response to his tactics would be to relax pressure on Iraq. The right course is a tough Security Council resolution leaving Saddam no wriggle room and making military enforcement inevitable in the event of any back-sliding. The past week shows that the more determined Mr Bush grows, the more support he gets, with the Saudis and the Arab League turning back towards America, and Congressional and popular American backing growing.

Russia and China will not actively support American military action against Iraq, but they will probably acquiesce. They have no conceivable interest in seeing rogue states prevail. Old guard Communists and friends of Iraq will have to swallow hard. But new leaders know that they can no longer afford the luxury of gesture politics. They have discreetly used September 11 to re-align their relations with America and shed their earlier “any enemy of the US is a friend of ours” approach.

Despite support for America after September 11, the backbone of most European governments – with the exception of Britain – subsequently jellified when faced with an attack on Iraq. The transatlantic relationship was left looking ragged and insecure. France and most other European allies are now scrambling back on side, recognising that in the threatened conflict Europe’s place is at America’s side. They will want to be on the winning team. The exception is Germany, where Gerhard Schroder’s electoral opportunism in opposing military action has damaged German-American relations.

Arab countries can justifiably ask why the UN is being asked to endorse war against Iraq to enforce UN resolutions while older resolutions to stop Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and to demand the surrender of occupied territory are ignored. The best way to counter this is for Mr Bush to implement those parts of his recent Middle East speech offering hope to the Palestinians of their own state if they give up terrorism. George Bush Snr’s commitment to a renewed American push for Middle East peace was critical in building the coalition against Saddam last time. In their hearts, Arab governments want Saddam’s fall because he is also a risk to them. But they must be able to show their people that the US and the UN are equally determined to resolve the Palestine problem.

Saddam’s record of duplicity leaves little doubt that military action is required. The most likely timing is early in the New Year. It will not be without risks, but the dangers need to be kept in proportion. America is far stronger and more advanced in military technology than in 1991, and Iraq significantly weaker: by some estimates it is only at 30 per cent of Gulf war strength. The certainty of military defeat may persuade Saddam’s generals to depose him to save themselves from war crimes tribunals and worse. We would be imprudent to count on it – his enforcement of loyalty through terror shows no sign of diminishing.

Saddam could in desperation use some of his weapons of mass destruction, but the warning from America and Britain in 1991 about the devastating consequences for Iraq of such use still stands. They are likely to deter him again. More probably, he will try again to suck Israel into the conflict to ignite Arab popular support: Ariel Sharon will not show the same restraint as Yitzhak Rabin in the Gulf war. But Iraq’s capacity to strike militarily at Israel is much reduced and attempted Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons would deserve the response it would undoubtedly receive.

Britain has shown steadfastness, and the Prime Minister political courage, in facing up to the threat from Iraq to international peace and security and to hopes of a world order in which the UN’s voice is heard and obeyed.

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