It has always seemed mistaken to perceive Iraq as the epicenter of the "Iraq crisis". Events there represent only one manifestation of a much more profound issue: how the rest of the world should manage its relationship with the United States. This will be our great foreign policy dilemma for at least the first half of the 21st century.
America's wealth and power are inescapable realities. It seems self-indulgent to lavish emotional and intellectual energy on deploring the shortcomings of the world's only superpower. From Tony Blair downwards, all of us must focus on coming to terms with the US, rather than figuratively waving placards to demand that this great nation should be something other than it is.
Yet, it is hard not to hate George Bush. His ignorance and conceit, his professed special relationship with God, invite revulsion. A few weeks ago, I heard a British diplomat observe sagely: "We must not demonize Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz." Why not? The US defense secretary and his assistant have implemented coalition policy in Iraq in a fashion that makes Soviet behavior in Afghanistan in the 1970s appear dextrous. The British are hapless passengers on the Pentagon's juggernaut.
The president's personal odyssey touched a new low this week, when he asserted publicly that Saddam Hussein should die. After a fair trial, he says, Iraq's former dictator should swing or be shot, though Washington thinks it expedient to delegate Iraqis to do the business.
There will be no trouble with the British government about this scenario. Downing Street's line suggests a script originally written for Pontius Pilate. Tony Blair declares that what an Iraqi administration chooses to do with Saddam is absolutely no business of Britain's. If the powers-that-will-be in Iraq decide he should take an early bath on the scaffold, then what can Britain's prime minister do, save shrug?
This posture seems less worthy of respect than that of the US president. Bush is a long-standing enthusiast for capital punishment, who believes there is nothing like a good hanging to purge the soul. Blair is alleged to be an opponent. Surely this is an indivisible position. If one believes judicial killing is wrong, then how is it possible to make exceptions? What price Ian Huntley's neck if especially horrible crimes justify temporary suspension of principled objections to execution?
About now, somebody from Downing Street will murmur: "Come on, get real. The White House is determined that Saddam will take the jump anyway, so where's the sense in Tony being seen to break ranks on something he can't stop?" This argument has got Britain and its government into a great deal of trouble already. It looks shakier by the day.
Yet Blair would also privately justify his behavior on the usual basis, that a satisfying proportion of Labour focus groups are untroubled about Saddam's fate. Why should he not hang? It may be crass of a US president publicly to prejudge the outcome of judicial proceedings, but nobody is likely to face the wrath of Sue, Grabbit and Runne for declaring Saddam to be one of the most unpleasant dictators of the past generation - a mass murderer whose crimes place him in the same historical category as Mao or Stalin, albeit with fewer foolish western sympathizers.
We can agree, perhaps, that Saddam Hussein does not deserve to live. It is a pity that he made no show of resistance when American soldiers found him, to justify tossing a grenade into his spider hole. But he did not fight, and was captured alive. Next year, some sort of tribunal will find him guilty of unspeakable crimes. Thereafter it will be inconvenient and expensive to guard him through a long captivity.
Yet those of us who reject judicial killing can support no sentence other than life imprisonment. The coalition's avowed purpose in Iraq is to change the political culture of centuries, above all the region's conviction that problems are capable of solution only by administering violent death. Already, the Americans' tactical conduct of anti-guerrilla operations compromises this objective, by showing how little the US army esteems the lives of innocent Iraqis.
Every British soldier deemed responsible for unjustifiably causing death by his own actions on operational duty faces at least disciplinary charges, and not infrequently criminal prosecution. American soldiers, by contrast, are granted a wide-ranging dispensation for silly mistakes when they get their licenses to kill.
A friend in the counter-insurgency business recently met some spooky friends in Washington whose organization was responsible for the Predator strike in which a guided missile killed a group of innocent Afghans, in the mistaken belief that they were Osama bin Laden. "Who faces the murder charges?" my friend teased the spooks. They looked blank. Nobody does, of course.
The neo-cons in Washington deserve credit for getting one big thing right. For too long, Europeans have acquiesced in the view that democracy is a luxury beyond the means of most second and third world countries. Paul Wolfowitz and his friends are surely correct, that only democracy can offer hopes of building societies that behave towards one another with decency and moderation, whatever the evidence to the contrary in the performance of Ariel Sharon.
The neo-cons fatally compromise their purpose, however, by placing their faith in force to impose democracy. Even those of us who were deeply skeptical about US intervention in Iraq should acknowledge that the country is better without Saddam. But US policy since the war ended has emphasized firepower and cash, rather than hearts and minds.
In the old days in Vietnam, I believed that the Americans would achieve nothing until they committed soldiers who liked and respected the place and the people, rather than loathing and despising them. So it seems again in Iraq.
Now, they want to execute Saddam. My wife, whose liberal instincts are normally much more reliable than mine, is bemused by my scruples. She believes the case is unanswerable for the dictator's cheap, permanent removal. But I cannot swallow either the principled or pragmatic arguments for yet another act of government-directed violence.
The allies rightly executed the leading Nazi and Japanese war criminals in 1945 and 1946. That was in another age, after the victors had fought the greatest war of national survival the world has seen. Bush's intervention in Iraq, by contrast, represented a war of choice, with the limited purpose of changing the nation's government.
If it is now to become US policy to execute former dictators who have committed terrible crimes against their own people, then many past and some current American clients will need to form an orderly queue to the gallows.
In reality, Bush's eagerness to see Saddam swing reflects not an overarching objection to murderous dictators, but an ad hominem desire to complete the liberation of Iraq with a gesture that fits his own brutish view of the world. The least Blair can do, on Britain's behalf, is to say that we can no more endorse the sponsorship of a hanging carried out by Iraqi stooges of the coalition, than fly out Geoff Hoon to do the job personally.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003