Last Friday the celebrated American pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote an article entitled Victory changes everything...? It contained the following paragraph: "The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again - Gulf war, Afghan war, next war - is that power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power. Now is the time to use it to deter, defeat or destroy the other regimes in the area that are host to radical Islamic terrorism."
This piece appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post, once the spiritual home of what Spiro Agnew used to call "pointy-headed liberals" and "nattering nabobs of negativism" (which is the nearest one can get to a translation of "bearded, muesli-eating sandal-wearers").
It was part of a diptych of linked stories and, of the two, it was in a way the more moderate. Krauthammer was, surprisingly, not in favor of an immediate all-guns-blazing assault on Iraq. Instead he favored sorting out Sudan, Syria, Libya and Yemen ... "and then on to Iraq". But alongside his column was one by a Post regular, Richard Cohen, who was in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein at once.
This is a reasonable microcosm of the average Washington debate these days. Do we take out Saddam this week or next? Do we attack one country or five? Shall we wipe out everyone who disagrees with us, or just most of them? It goes on round liberal dinner tables as well as on the op-ed pages. There has not been such a popular war since the swells danced jigs through London clubland in August 1914. Since September 11, hardly any harm has befallen Americans even in the battle zone. More journalists have been killed than GIs. We can't stop here! The fun's hardly started yet! A Newsweek poll even has 56% in favor of sending "large numbers of US ground troops" to Iraq.
The current wave of Iraq-mania was set off by a question to the president at the White House a week ago. He has been asked about Iraq at every opportunity over the past three months, and has to vary his answers a bit. On this occasion he threw in a "watch out" message to Saddam, which was widely interpreted to indicate a shift in policy.
Possibly it does. But no one has previously regarded this president as a man inclined to give highly nuanced, impromptu answers to routine press questions. What we know is that four days after the September attacks, there was a roundtable strategy meeting at Camp David between the administration's leading players at which the idea of attacking Iraq was raised and quickly turned aside. There is no firm evidence that it has received sustained top-level attention since then.
What we also know is that a head of steam is building up behind the notion from outside which might yet turn the op-ed pieces into fulfillment. The more inconvenient facts - that the US lacks anything as old-fashioned as a casus belli, that the attitude of the US's allies ranges from concerned to panic-stricken, that the consequences in the region are potentially stupefying, that no sensible plan of toppling Saddam has yet emerged over the past 20 years and that the US has no idea who on earth who might replace him - are being ignored, at least outside the state department.
Various papers have reported that plans have been drawn up to invade Iraq. I should hope so, too. They doubtless existed before September 11 and are being re-worked now. The Pentagon has contingency plans for just about everything (except, so it seems, what actually happens). So I retain some hope that the next phase will be more subtle and rooted to the legitimate objective of neutralizing proven terrorist threats.
I hold no brief for Saddam. If he attacks the US or a surrogate, there must of course be a massive response. But in the meantime he at least fulfills the role traditionally performed by the old nuclear dictators of Russia and China, that of providing a smidgen of balance of power. Without that, Krauthammer & co would be free to believe the earth is theirs alone.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001