The fiercest debates about war usually take place after the slaughter has begun,
and sometimes only when it's over. Vietnam crept up on Kennedy, and then Johnson,
and even in 1965 when their private deliberations concluded with American military
intervention, the public argument was nugatory. The mainstream media gave it near-total
support. Somewhat later, opinion turned, and war fury both ways dominated the
whole of politics. By then it was too late to save anyone from catastrophe.
The case of modern Iraq is different. We can see war coming. A better analogy
is the second world war, which was preceded by epic argument between appeasers
and warriors here, and then by pro- and anti-war debates in America both before
and after Pearl Harbor. More telling still is George Bush I's Gulf war against
Saddam Hussein in 1991. This too had a long build-up. In the course of it, the
American debate was troubled. Despite the obvious pretext supplied by Saddam's
invasion of Kuwait, the Senate approved military force by only 52 votes to 47.
Among those who voted against Operation Desert Storm was Senator Sam Nunn, the
hard-nosed chairman of the armed services committee.
George Bush II's Iraq war is being prepared in different circumstances. The
political build-up is intense and almost unchallenged. There are virtually no
naysayers in mainstream Washington, though they have plenty of opportunity to
speak. Last week the US seized on Iraq's rejection of a new team of UN weapons
inspectors, and with electric speed cast aside Kofi Annan's offer of mediation.
A detailed battle plan was leaked to the New York Times, evidently by someone
who thought it wasn't good enough. The momentum towards war is palpable, and to
anyone who read Bush's speeches since he became a national politician it should
not be surprising.
The absence of challenge can also be seen in Europe. The other day Jon Snow
pressed Tony Blair on this point, and extracted an extraordinary response. Could
you foresee yourself committing British troops to a ground war in Iraq, Snow asked.
"I suggest we have that discussion when the decisions are actually about to be
taken," Blair replied. In other words, when the discussion can influence nothing.
Blair's suggested timing is precisely wrong. Any serious debate taking place after
Washington has decided where it's about to go can only be destructive to the alliance.
The time when a European argument might be useful is now, before the stone is
For a start, it would put salutary pressure on the Europeans. European nations
need to formulate some positions or, ideally, one position. What do they propose
to do about Saddam? How do they think about his weapons of mass destruction? What
is their view on the balance between terror and freedom? How do they propose to
counter the virulent American voices which remark that Europe is simply failing
to address the threats it faces from terrorist-harboring states? Europe slinks
silent in the shadows of this crucial discussion.
But in the absence of any real discussion in America, a more public European
debate could perform an urgent service to the world. Major European leaders should
be asking these questions in public places, even if one makes the charitable assumption
that none of the issues are lost on the American actors. They fall into two categories.
Might war work? And is it right?
There's more to hear, for example, about some of the working premises of the
warriors. Are they banking on Saddam caving in fast, and his armies disintegrating?
Since Washington is signaling skepticism about either an internal coup or an effective
local military force of dissidents, the more likely plan envisages some 250,000
US troops, with Britain and few others possibly alongside. Have they worked out
the scale of the collateral damage likely in such a big war? "No one can say whether
a war will last five days, five weeks or five months," the skeptical Nunn said
in 1991. With a smaller alliance to depend on, and a more tenuous casus belli
, the question is more urgently worth asking today.
What, then, of the region? Is it the case that Washington, after paying lip-service
to a Middle East peace process, will use the failure of its own one-sided approach
as justification for the real agenda of the Pentagon hawks, who've been thirsting
to devour Saddam ever since Bush I failed to do so? If Saddam is dethroned but
not destroyed, what then? How deeply have the consequences of any failure in this
enterprise been considered? Are such questions inappropriate for mainstream European
politicians to ask or, instead, an essential contribution from allies who will
be expected to go along with anything that eventually happens?
Just as pressing are the issues of justice and proportionality. Even if one
accepts the contested claim that Saddam has deliverable weapons of mass destruction
(WMD), how valid are the scenarios that predicate their use? If he can reach Israel,
why would he dare to try if he knew the entire world would then respond in kind?
Some say the most convincing explanation of his WMD is, as Tariq Aziz once confided,
to prepare for revenge against Iran. It seems at least possible that the only
scenario in which these weapons become a threat to America and her allies is in
some last-ditch act of desperation as the Iraqi tyrant faces the build-up of an
invasion army. Is it not time such perversity broke through the wall of acquiescent
silence, and was coolly evaluated by informed public people in the public realm?
More largely, how will the envisaged campaign fit into the frame of international
law? How stale is the thread of old UN resolutions that America - and Britain
- seem determined not to try to refresh? Where might the unfolding of a long and
bloody campaign fit into the doctrines of morality? That question could be as
inflammatory as it was at Suez, among both officers and men. John Major, in his
autobiography, recalls summoning his Anglican archbishop and Catholic cardinal
to secure their approval for the Gulf war. They "gave me their public and private
support", he writes, "and in so doing their reassurance that this would be a just
war". The same blessing will be far harder to buy in 2003, even if the issues
have been properly explored beforehand.
Germany is precluded from such discussion until and perhaps after the September
election. France, on anything to do with the Middle East, has no credence in Washington.
But Britain has a position and a special voice, and now is the time to make use
of them, before these severe anxieties are buried under the juggernaut of a son's
revenge for what happened to his father. To say that they're only worth discussing
"when the decisions are actually about to be taken" is to say that everything
must be left to the leaders. If these then suffer the fate of Lyndon B Johnson,
booted out of politics for a war the people decided they didn't want, they will
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002