Ain't bust, so does it need fixing?

The arguments for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam are moral, not strategic, argues James Bucha

The battle for Shah-i-Kot in eastern Afghanistan, which is now coming to an end, is an instance of the law of diminishing returns in the US military war on terror. Ten days of hard fighting in the snow, eight American dead and numerous other battle casualties, and all for the stragglers of a smashed regime.

Osama Bin Laden was a creature of the chaos in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban regime, he was able to build a base strong enough to mount ambitious attacks on US embassies in east Africa in 1998 and the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

The second phase of the war on terror should, in terms of pure economy, consist of consolidating some form of police regime in Afghanistan that will deprive disaffected and suicidal Muslim activists of cash, moral and logistical support and military training. Hell, the US doesn't need an Afghan chapter in The Federalist Papers.

Yet neither the Bush administration nor the United States public has the taste for this sort of diplomatic work. Nation-building is for wimps. The military war on terror still has elan, popular support, pre-positioned warships and forward bases. The US is shedding the nuclear restraints of the cold war - no first use of nuclear weapons, no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, no tactical or battlefield weapons - with the delight of a nudist shedding clothes. In searching around for a new target, George W Bush has alighted on the unfinished business of his father's administration in 1991: the Baathist regime in Iraq.

Since the US and allied expedition to oust him from Kuwait in 1990-91, known as Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein has invaded none of his neighbours, and has been forced to swallow his frustration while the Kurdish north of Iraq prospers as a UN protectorate.

I have seen no evidence of Iraqi implication in the attacks of 1998 and 11 September 2001; and anyway, Stalinist Iraq and Bin Laden's decentralised al-Qaeda organisation are chalk and cheese. Saddam has given hospitality to the Palestinian gun-for-hire, Abu Nidal, since the late 1970s, but his chief terror proxies, the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MKO), are now integrated into the Iraqi armed forces and are directed at Iran. The Baath Party has a taste for chemical and biological weapons - it is hard to imagine Iraq with any nuclear capability - and has vowed not to allow the UN to send back weapons inspectors who left the country in 1998. But Saddam's arsenal of unconventional weapons will surely be much diminished from the levels of 1991 when, it may be recollected, Iraq did not deploy them.

The present containment policy is highly satisfactory to Iraq's neighbours, not merely Kuwait, but also Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is justification for the US maintaining the costly military base of Kharj south of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. From a purely strategic aspect, the situation ain't bust and don't need fixing.

From a moral aspect, it is and does. The sanctions imposed by the UN in 1990, and the regular British and American air sorties over the north and south of Iraq, have not merely deprived Iraq of a decade of economic progress - Japan has suffered that - but have plunged the country back into the economic conditions of the 1940s. Power generation, water treatment, and rail, water and air transport have been partly destroyed, the currency has collapsed, education is demoralised and agriculture is in irreversible decay. The so-called UN oil-for-food deal, reluctantly accepted by Saddam in 1996, has at least staved off famine and epidemic.

The UN sanctions are showing the wear and tear of age, and an oil-smuggling operation generates enough hard cash - certainly more than $1bn a year - for Saddam to maintain his armed forces and security services; to begin (though not complete) various Potemkin prestige projects; and to maintain the vestiges of a foreign policy that consists chiefly of paying subsidies to Palestinians who fight Israel. Iraqis, who accept no responsibility for Saddam's invasions of Iran and Kuwait, feel abandoned by the US and Britain, tied up with the Baath-like foxes in a sack to tear each other to pieces. To remove Saddam from power would at least put the Iraqis out of their misery and permit them to join the larger world. Unlike the Afghans, they passionately want to do so.

Will Bush Jr succeed where his father failed? A long-range bombing campaign alone will not succeed. There may be major targets in the country, but the Clinton administration did not discover them in the bombing campaign of December 1998 called Desert Fox. The only country with substantial intelligence expertise in Iraq is Iran, which runs agents into Baghdad and the Shia south. In his "axis of evil" speech, though, Bush managed to insult the entire Iranian nation. The US might unite with local allies in the bombing, as it did in Afghanistan, with the Kurds and the southern Shia taking the role of the United Front or Northern Alliance. But then Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which prefer to suppress minorities of each community, would undermine such a campaign.

That leaves the US with two courses of action. It can seek to foment a mutiny in the Iraqi armed forces or mount a large-scale international expedition on the model of Desert Storm. The first is the old chestnut, known, in intelligence circles, as "the nice Sunni general". The purpose would be to dispose of Saddam, his horrid sons Uday and Qusay and the worst of the Baath gangsters, and install a military government with fewer ambitions. But Saddam has a much more vivid notion of the threat to his position from the armed forces than does the US administration. "Even before you think of betraying him, you are dead," is how an Asian diplomat once put it.

That leaves a Desert Storm, Mark II, with all its tedious coalition-building and the costly and complex deployment of anything up to a quarter of a million men. It has been done before, and can be done again. The Arab world will think that the US has had it in for them since 11 September, which it probably does. However, a full military campaign may not be necessary. Over the next few months, we should expect some sabre-rattling from the US to threaten an assault, but in part also to provoke a military coup.

Saddam, for his part, will wriggle this way and that. To undermine international support for the US, he may even permit the UN to send back its weapons inspectors. After all, Saddam likes the weapons inspectors because he can use them to stage crises and bring Iraq and the question of sanctions back on to the international menu. Saddam Hussein has had a lifetime of experience saving his own life.

James Buchan is a former Middle East correspondent of the Financial Times