The family feud is rarely mentioned as a factor in contemporary politics, perhaps because its tribal character does not fit well into the "rational actor'' model favoured by political scientists and pundits. Yet the American political system, in particular, operates on quasi-tribal lines, to the point where ideological affiliations play an overt role in judicial appointments. Tribalism may soon be the determining factor in White House decision-making, too, for George W Bush and his entourage don't deal in shades of grey. As far as they're concerned, the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, us and them, are perfectly clear; and within this world of absolutes the family feud is alive and well. After eight long years of waiting, the Bushes have a score to settle with the Husseins.
In 1980, Saddam Hussein cemented his hold on power by invading Iran. The invasion sparked a 10-year war in which more than a million people died. In 1990, he turned his attention to the south, invading Kuwait and prompting a war with the US and its allies that, in many respects, continues today.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait provided George Bush Sr with an opportunity to shine. Flanked by two of his most trusted aides, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, he threw the US military into a desert war that was relatively easy to fight and win. Cruise missiles and tank-destroying aircraft soon routed the Iraqi army at a cost of only a few hundred allied lives. Ultimately, allied forces did not advance on Baghdad, thereby preserving the balance of power in the Middle East and avoiding continued engagement; the scenario that all post-Vietnam US presidents most fear. A triumphant Bush must have felt assured of a second term, but the voters were easily distracted by the youthful charisma of Bill Clinton, who soon outshone the staid establishment. Bush suffered a humiliating defeat in 1992, retreating to Texas to lick his wounds. Saddam, in contrast, remained firmly ensconced in Baghdad, claiming that he had won the war, and grooming his sons Uday and Qusay for power.
But Bush, as it happens, also has sons. Canny and articulate, 48-year-old Jeb was the one more obviously fitted to fill his father's political shoes, but having just been elected to public office for the first time in 1998, he wasn't ready for a presidential campaign. We are now familiar with the ways in which the Florida "recount'' became a George W Bush presidential coup. Though Saddam prefers more violent methods, he undoubtedly would have approved; were it not for the consequences.
The new Bush administration, dominated by George Bush Sr, Cheney and Powell, has arrived in Washington with clear foreign policy goals. Like Saddam, it needs an external conflict to shore up its fragile domestic position and justify increased military spending. The strengthening of the armed forces is an explicit priority, one that includes the national missile defence system as well as new tanks, planes, ships and submarines. What is missing is the prospect of a fight that can be won cleanly and spectacularly without the loss of American lives.
In this vein, a new Powell doctrine has already been articulated: force will be used only to support clear political objectives and with sufficient resources to ensure success. As Condoleezza Rice, the new National Security Advisor, has explained, prevention, peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention are not part of the plan. "We don't need the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.''
Yet easily winnable military conflicts are few and far between in the contemporary world order. For a new administration seeking to prove itself, Iraq is the only battlefield that fits the bill. Thanks to Clinton, Saddam and his sons are ready for the rematch. Revelations in December 1998 that the CIA had used the UN weapons inspection programme to identify military targets and track Saddam's movements enabled the Husseins to stop co-operating with the UN. Operation Desert Fox followed, with US and British planes bombing targets across Iraq.
Saddam and his sons have not only had two years in which to rebuild and rearm; they have also benefited from the almost complete collapse of support for the sanctions imposed by the UN in 1991. Within the Security Council, Russia, France and China eager to do business and recoup overdue loans have successfully lobbied for changes to the sanctions regime. Under the "oil-for-food'' programme, the Husseins are now able to sell unlimited quantities of oil and buy a wide range of industrial products. Smuggling is rampant and arms control experts are convinced that Iraq again possesses sizeable stocks of chemical and biological weapons. A nuclear bomb and missiles capable of delivering it are likely to follow. The average Iraqi, meanwhile, remains poor and malnourished, without all but the most limited medical care.
Although US and British warplanes continue to attack Iraqi air defences in the so-called (and probably illegal) "no-fly zones'', airlines have resumed their services to Baghdad, foreign dignitaries have paid courtesy calls, and business is keen for contracts with what, in terms of proven reserves, is the world's most oil-rich country. The Bushes, for their part, have criticised Clinton strongly for his weakness towards Iraq. To them, the legacy of the Gulf War America's credibility is once again on the line.
The Bushes know that a second war against Iraq will not receive the approval of the Security Council. But condemnations from individual countries will be dismissed as statements that merely conceal but do not deny a growing acceptance that US power defines the new world order.
In the face of a greatly emboldened and aggressive United States, the policy approaches adopted by middle powers such as the UK become more important. One option would be to demur to the Bush administration on Iraq, missile defence, the Kyoto Protocol and other critical issues. This might work in the short term: avoiding arguments with the world's single superpower is a sensible goal. But the risks associated with acquiescence would also be considerable, given the willingness of Republican decision-makers to exploit power and opportunity against even those who consider themselves friends and more important given the long-term damage to the international system that would most probably result. Another, more attractive but challenging option, would be to stand somewhat apart from the US and focus on retaining the co-operative system of international organisations and rules that exists between and among other countries.
Patience and cool heads are required on all sides, especially when, as in Iraq, things get personal. In two years' time, the Republicans will probably lose control of the Senate and House of Representatives, and with it their ability to dominate decision-making in Washington. And with luck, in four years' time the American people will once again send the Bushes packing.
Professor Michael Byers teaches international law at Duke University, North Carolina. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the "London Review of Books".
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.