In some left-wing quarters, a seductive argument is taking root. If Henry Kissinger, the American military, the Turkish government and the Saudi royal family are all against an invasion of Iraq - to say nothing of our own Max Hastings - must there not be a case in favour of it? Moreover, given that, if things stay as they are, the US and Britain would continue to impose death and misery on the Iraqi people through sanctions, should we not support regime change as the lesser evil? For all the warnings of a long and bloody conflict, Saddam Hussein's army is about one-third of the size it was in the Gulf war, less well-equipped and probably less determined. The Americans will not this time be able to build an international coalition, but, in all honesty, their military effort will be more efficient as a result. We have seen, in Kosovo and Afghanistan, that the US can win with remarkable speed and with casualties far lower, even among the enemy, than the grim forecasts of its critics. The beneficiaries would be the poor, tortured, tyrannised people of Iraq, who are surely worthy of left-wing sympathy, and indeed got it, in lashings, before Washington, too, decided that Saddam was a bad man.
This argument has force and should be addressed. It is not necessarily weakened because the Bush administration never pretends to any interest in ordinary Iraqis or because past US and British governments were happy to arm Saddam secretly when he was their ally against Iran. The sudden urgency of Washington's desire to overthrow Saddam is prompted by concern over the flow of oil to ordinary Americans. There is every reason to fear for the stability of Saudi Arabia, and every reason to believe that that country, not Afghanistan, still less Iraq, is the true centre of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The US wants a friendly (in effect, a new puppet) regime in Baghdad to secure oil supplies.
All attempts at other explanations - the suggestions that Iraq was behind anthrax attacks or that Saddam assisted Osama Bin Laden - have proved transparently absurd. Scott Ritter, the senior UN weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, has insisted that the country was at least 90 per cent disarmed at the end of his mission. If Saddam had started building significant new stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, the Bush administration would surely have gone beyond the vague and ambiguous intelligence leaks to selected newspapers, and placed more conclusive evidence in the public domain.
The left is not likely to support a war fought for oil. But why should the left worry about motives? Why does it need to get on such a moral high horse? Why does it not adopt its own realpolitik, supporting any bastard as long as he can advance the cause? If Bush can deliver the Iraqis from Saddam, runs the argument, he should not be opposed just because he is a Republican president. Iraq, after all, is not Vietnam, where the US was suppressing what could plausibly be seen as a national liberation movement.
The answer is simple. Saddam is a temporary phenomenon (tyrannies like his rarely survive the tyrant's death) but US power is not; on the contrary, it seems likely to become ever greater. Many of those now at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, which President Bush declines to attend, might well argue that the US is a greater threat to the future of the world than Saddam because it so powerfully spreads the values that threaten the planet's health. America, no matter how much we admire its own freedom, democracy and idealism, cannot be allowed to act as the moral arbiter of the world. It must be persuaded, even forced, to act within a framework of international laws and treaties. You cannot get more lawless than mounting an attack on a country when there has been no provocation whatever, and scant evidence of an imminent threat. The Bush administration's approach to war in Iraq - for which it intends to avoid getting even congressional approval, let alone UN approval - is all of a piece with its approach to Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, world trade rounds, biological weapons treaties and so on.
America puts its own interests first. Nothing wrong with that; most governments do. But the US, to an unprecedented extent, is the most powerful country on the planet, both economically and militarily. One does not need to buy the more lurid denunciations of American imperialism to believe that, for the sake of all our futures, we need to establish the means to check the exercise of its power. The statesmen and diplomats of 19th-century Europe would have had no doubts. Saddam, malign as he is, remains a regional threat; America, by virtue of its power, is a global one.
In the name of Ikea
The Ikea catalogue, it is reported, now has a circulation four times greater than the Bible's. This will be glad news to many on the left, not only because Ikea is based in social democratic Sweden but also because, like the NHS and the old Soviet Union, it specialises in prodigiously long queues. All that remains is to update some of the commandments. 1) Honour thy father and thy mother, for thou may need them to help get the darn thing assembled. 2) Thou shalt not speak the Lord's name in vain when asking how thou art supposed to get the wretched stuff home. 3) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's screws, even when thine own appear to be missing. 4) Nor shalt thou covet thy neighbour's Conran furniture, even though it looks classier and trendier. 5) Thou shalt not kill anybody when charging out of the store with thy flat-pack. 6) Thou shalt not bear false witness against the assembly instructions when it is thine own silly fault.