If anyone could sell George Bush's planned war of aggression against Iraq, surely it should be Tony Blair, a politician whose career has been built on his ability to smoothtalk his way out of a crisis. He has been straining every nerve to do just that for the past week. The latest sales drive began with the prime minister's attempt to link the alleged ricin find above a north London chemist's shop with "weapons of mass destruction". And it culminated on Monday with his imaginative effort to construct a link between "rogue states" such as Iraq and Islamist terrorism.
But all the signs are that his spin offensive simply isn't working. Such tales may find more of an echo in the United States, where half the population believes Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11 attacks, according to some polls. But in Britain - and even more so in the rest of the world - most people are now convinced that the opposite is the case: that the best way to boost support for al-Qaida and Islamist attacks on western targets is precisely to launch an Anglo-American crusade to invade and occupy Arab, Muslim Iraq.
Not only does public opinion - along with key sections of the civil service, military, churches and trade unions - appear to be hardening against the expected war, but the Labour party itself shows every sign of risking rupture if that war goes badly. Labour anxieties will only have been heightened by the announcement yesterday of a "preliminary" decision to accept the US request to use the Fylingdales base in Yorkshire for Bush's son of star wars missile program - a move which can confidently be expected to boost the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The same goes for the comments this week from Bush, the man who will actually make the decision about war, that he is "tired" of Saddam Hussein's "games" and "time is running out".
But, if the polling evidence is to be believed, one factor would change all that and turn opposition in both Labour ranks and the wider public into majority support for war: a new UN security council resolution authorizing an attack. Despite the weapons inspectors' failure to find their smoking gun, Blair and his entourage now seem almost smugly confident they will be able to prove that Iraq is hiding chemical or biological weapons and declare a "material breach" of its obligations to disarm under resolution 1441. Perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It isn't hard to imagine, for example, some of the 500 Iraqi scientists the US wants to spirit out of the country singing for their supper if the price and protection were right.
The noises from the Blairite camp yesterday nevertheless suggested the government might abandon the attempt to win support for a new resolution and rely instead on 1441 and evidence of a material breach as its "UN route". But in reality this UN procedure has already been shown to be a fraud. It has been absolutely clear throughout that the US, and by extension Britain - explicitly confirmed this week by Blair when he declared that the UN could exercise no "block" on war - have only been prepared to use the UN if it guarantees the result they want. It is only necessary to imagine applying such a condition to other systems of rules - elections or laws, for example - to see its utter absurdity.
Even if the US is able to bribe and bully its way to a new UN resolution in the face of world opinion - with oil contracts here and nods to ethnic repression there - that endorsement will lack any genuine international legitimacy. An invasion and occupation of a country which offers no credibly "clear and present threat" to any other state constitutes in any case a multiple violation of the UN charter. As the buildup to war continues, it will likely become ever clearer that the UN is simply being used as a fig leaf for aggression and the public opinion advantages of any security council deal may well prove less significant than they now appear.
As things stand, there must be every expectation that Tony Blair is prepared to drag this country into a profoundly dangerous US imperial adventure in the teeth of mass public opposition without even the veneer of prior parliamentary endorsement. One result is that sections of what is already Britain's largest-ever anti-war movement will turn to civil disobedience. Last week, in the first such incident since Britain's war of intervention against the Soviet Union more than 80 years ago, two traindrivers based at Motherwell in Scotland refused to move a freight train carrying ammunition destined for British forces in the Gulf in protest against the threat of war against Iraq. More than a dozen workers at the depot have now supported the action. If this war goes ahead, many others are likely to follow their lead. In such circumstances, direct action will not simply be justified, it will be a democratic necessity.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003