Not content with throwing the whole Muslim world into a state of resentful apprehension and casting the United Nations into a lather of dispute, Washington's determination to wage war in Iraq is now threatening to break Europe asunder.
The letter signed by seven right-of-center governments and Tony Blair was probably got up more by Blair and his friend, the departing Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, than the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, for the simple reason that it is Blair who needs the cloak of international support at this time more than the US President. You have to be pretty desperate to resort to orchestrated declarations of support
Which tells us just how divisive this issue is. Who would have thought even six months ago that a country which had barely figured in discussion in the aftermath of 11 September should now not just dominate the discussion of the world but threaten to break all the old alliances in the process?
It's a measure of the determination of the Bush administration to see regime change in Baghdad. But it is also an indication of how doubtful the rest of the world remains about the justification for war and George Bush's motives in pursuing it.
They are right to be doubtful. You had only to have listened to, or read, President Bush's State of the Union address to see precisely why the doubters, within America as without, should worry at what the Bush administration is about.
Take the inspectors, whose role (to the rest of the world at any rate) is crucial to the issue of peace or war. In Bush's view, it is a complete sideshow. The inspectors, in the words of the American President, "were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California."
This may be news to the head of the inspectors, Hans Blix, who spent a whole session of the UN Security Council in New York on Monday setting out precisely how the inspectors were conducting this search and what they'd found. But no, on Bush's argument, Saddam Hussein has been already judged guilty. America doesn't need a "smoking gun", just the sight of Saddam Hussein owning up and preparing for punishment.
Nor, in Bush's explanation, is Washington going to the United Nations at the moment to seek its sanction for action. . "The course of this nation," he declared to prolonged applause, "does not dependent on the decisions of others."
What we have here is a total derogation of the doctrine of non-aggression against other states which lies at the heart of the United Nations, and the enunciation instead of a doctrine of pre-emptive war by one state against another. And on the grounds of what?
That Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who oppresses his own people? But then so is the Uzbekistan regime which we support. Because he suppresses the Kurds? But then think what the Russians are doing to the Chechens and the Chinese to the Tibetans with our tacit approval. Because Saddam has nasty weapons or may get them in the future? But then so do Israel, Pakistan and India, never mind North Korea.
Are we really saying that India has a right to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pakistan because it thinks its neighbor a threat (which it does), or the other way round?
No, all this high rhetoric about how nasty a man Saddam Hussein is (which he is) and how ready he is to use very nasty weapons against his enemies (which he also is) is so much propaganda. Saddam may have kept back some his arsenal of chemical materials and may have allowed al Qa'ida operatives into his country. Given the threats he faces to his survival it would be surprising if he didn't. But there is really no evidence that he has the nuclear capability (just the opposite, according to the head of the UN's nuclear agency, Dr Mohamed al-Baradei), the long-range missiles or the quantity or sophistication of chemical weaponry that would make him a threat at this time to his neighbors.
For the reasons behind the Bush administration's interest in Saddam Hussein you have to go back to the President's own words again. "A brutal dictator," he argued in a key passage of his address, "with a history of reckless aggression, with ties to terrorism, with great potential wealth, will not be permitted to dominate a vital region and threaten the United States."
Now you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to know why the Middle East is a "vital" region as compared to, say, South-east Asia. It is oil. Nor do you have to be too fanciful to add in Washington's alliance with Israel and relations with Saudi Arabia to see that it is not America that Saddam threatens but America's allies in the region.
Argue if you will that American security interests require a reordering of the Middle East. Admit that the Iraqi people will welcome the overthrow of a brutal regime. Arm-twist the members of the Security Council to give it the rubber stamp. Even assume that it will all be over in a week. But don't, for heaven's sake, pretend that this whole gambit is other than it is an old-fashioned exercise in regional dominance by a superpower which is wrong in principle, will have untold consequences in practice and which breaks every principle of international law and morality.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd