Are they mad?

Nobody should be in any doubt that Saddam Hussein's tyranny bears comparison with the worst of the 20th century. If there were compelling reasons of self-defence or self-interest to go to war with Iraq, as there were to go to war with Hitler, we could all cheer the prospect of the dictator's demise. The first moral presumption, however, must always be against war, because even America cannot zap villains without bloodshed. To say, as President Bush and Mr Blair do, that holding back is "not an option", is simply nonsense. The onus is on those who advocate war to make a compelling case, particularly when there has been no recent provocation. The leaders of Britain and the US have failed to do so.

Indeed, as our US editor suggests (page 18), they look like men who long ago made up their minds - President Bush talks of "regime change" as though he were an 18th-century Hapsburg wishing to claim another throne - and now cast around for a justification. First, we heard that Iraq was behind the mysterious anthrax attacks in the US last year. Although the precise culprit is still unknown, it is now clear that it was an inside job. Then we heard that Iraq had links to al-Qaeda. Last Monday, President Bush reportedly told the Canadian premier: "That is not the angle they [the intelligence agencies] are exploring now." The previous day, Condoleezza Rice seemed to warn that Saddam might launch missiles at London and Berlin. Since he has no missiles with a range beyond the Middle East, that "angle" went as suddenly as it came.

The case for war is now reduced to a series of conjectures. The much-quoted statement from the International Institute for Strategic Studies that Saddam is months away from a nuclear capability is hedged with qualifications. The institute's report actually says that Iraq "could probably produce nuclear weapons on short order" (italics added) but only if it could acquire sufficient fissile material from abroad, which "is not a high probability". Although Iraq is likely to have biological weapons, the institute says, "its delivery capability . . . appears limited"; and even if warheads were dropped on neighbouring countries, "dissemination would be inefficient". Its chemical weapons are judged less threatening still, being "unlikely to cause large casualties".

What the institute's studiously neutral report does not consider is the likelihood of Saddam actually using the weapons of mass destruction he might have. It is hard to escape the conclusion that they would be launched only if a US-led attack put his survival in danger. Even when his troops were routed in the Gulf war, and Baghdad itself seemed threatened, he did not unleash what was then a more formidable chemical and biological armoury, for fear of retaliation. Why would he now, from a much weaker position, provoke America and Israel? The damage that Saddam, if left alone, could or would do seems purely hypothetical; going to war, by contrast, seems to carry the near certainty of heavy casualties, particularly among Iraqi civilians, and a high risk of regional instability.

Nobody denies that Saddam is wicked or that he has a track record as an aggressor (first against Iran, with covert US backing). But 11 years after the Gulf war, his weakness is more striking than his strength. He has lost control of part of his country, he has failed to rebuild what was once a mighty military machine, his air force is in effect grounded, and he has to move daily for fear of assassination. His potential threat to British and US interests is not obviously greater than that posed by Iran, which is further advanced on its nuclear programme, or by Pakistan, which already has nuclear arms and could easily fall to a regime willing to use them.

All these calculations could change if the British and US governments produce new evidence - that Saddam has acquired stocks of the smallpox virus, say, or that he has bought (as some sources have hinted) long-range missiles from North Korea. The trouble is that neither of these is plausible (for the simple reason that the existence of black market smallpox supplies or North Korean missiles is unlikely) and, after the false stories of Saddam's links to anthrax and al-Qaeda, people will take some convincing of any new tales from London and Washington.

On page 21, John Lloyd argues powerfully that a war against so odious a tyrant as Saddam could be a just one. But no war can be just unless provocation is overwhelming and all steps have been taken to avoid it. And as Mr Lloyd writes, the Bush administration lacks just credentials. Indeed, Mr Blair's description of Saddam - "an outlaw" - could almost equally be applied to the president, who has ignored or sabotaged a whole series of international agreements, from Kyoto to the International Criminal Court. A system of international law that allowed for the overthrow of murderous dictators such as Saddam (and, incidentally, for the protection of elected leaders such as Chile's Allende or, now, Venezuela's Chavez) would be a fine thing. But the US is a big obstacle to such a system, since it sees no reason, as by far the most powerful nation on earth, why it should tolerate anything that inhibits its power. President Bush may still be persuaded to seek explicit UN backing for an invasion of Iraq, but it is obvious that he doesn't give a damn for the UN and will go ahead whatever it says. Nor does he really want to give Saddam an opportunity to readmit the weapons inspectors.

In this sense, the argument tips decisively against war - or at least against British support for it. To follow President Bush into Iraq is to give the imprimatur to American unilateralism, and to undermine international legality and international consensus. Far from giving hope of a more just world, it would merely confirm the doctrine that might is right.