A war with Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime is one that the left might, at another time, have seen as just. That it does not do so now is partly the left's own doing, and partly America's. If George W Bush has become a figure of ridicule on the left because of a simplified (and rapidly modified) version of evil as an "axis" of widely differing states, the left has become ridiculed on the right because of its lack of any concept of evil at all.
Nearly six decades of peace and prosperity under a US defence umbrella; the influence of polemicists who have depicted the US as a dangerous imperialist power and a destroyer of cultures; a habit of relativism that is anxious to put all manifestations of terror or violence into a "context" which explains or even excuses them - these have drained the ability of many on the left to judge threats for what they are. Such responses run through the European left, with different emphases: Britain has its imperial guilt, which the left continues to animate; the left in Germany has the reflex of a movement that flew the anti-militarist flag against its own country's past (true also, to a lesser extent, in Italy); France has a left (and a far right) that sees the US as a cultural vandal; the Scandinavians have a history of pacifism.
These consciences are stirred by instances of repression and stirred by the heroism of resistance to them. These have included the struggle of the African National Congress against apartheid; or the doomed resistance of Salvador Allende against the Chilean armed forces; or even the intifada of the Palestinians against Israeli tanks. In these and other cases, the complicity of the west, usually the US and/or the UK, is often seen: that complicity has become an almost necessary part of the European left's demonology. A common charge at present, for example, is that the US and the Europeans armed Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and that they should, therefore, now be stopped from opposing him.
Yet Saddam ought to make a good villain for the left. He has always been ruthless and cruel. He has ruled through a privileged elite, the minority (in Iraq, not in the Arab world) Sunni Muslims - to the damage of the majority Shias. Against the Kurds - once more than 20 per cent of Iraq's population - he attempted genocide, in which tens of thousands perished in scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. He has diverted vast oil revenues to his own and his family's use. He has, since 1991, blatantly defied the UN in its attempts to enforce the conditions for the end of the Gulf war. The left has, in the past century and even before, taken the lead in trying to put in place laws and procedures to which all would adhere, so that the weak could claim their protection. Saddam is the nemesis of such a movement: his actions are dictated purely by the considerations of his own regime and family survival.
That he now constitutes an active threat to surrounding states, or to western states against which he might sponsor terrorist attacks, is impossible to assess definitively - and will remain so, whatever dossiers are exposed to public view.
Will Saddam use the weapons of mass destruction he possesses? Rationally, he should not. But dictators are seldom rational, even in their own long-term interests. It was not rational to fight Iran for seven years, nor to invade Kuwait. Both Mussolini and Hitler made disastrously irrational moves in their choices of foreign enemies; Robert Mugabe is making another one now, in his choice of domestic enemies. Saddam has always sought to export the tensions of his rule by foreign adventures. As Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, puts it, comparing failed states with totalitarian ones such as Iraq: "One is unable to avoid subverting international law; the other is only too willing to flout it."
But what happens if victory over Saddam's forces is secured? The country, an artificial creation by Britain in the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, has, under the monarchy (1921-1958), rapidly succeeding military governments (1958-1968) and Ba'ath Party rule (1968 to the present), never succeeded in welding together the three main groups of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds into a functioning national entity.
The Shias, and even more so the Kurds, regarded the state as an imposition, largely because it was always dominated by the Sunnis. The nearly two-and-a-half decades of Saddam's rule have seen these groups become more hostile to each other than they were before; and the separate revolts of the Shias and the Kurds after the defeat of the Iraqi army in 1991 - brutal in themselves, and brutally put down - showed both that opposition to Ba'ath rule remains high, and that the Sunni Ba'athists will do anything to avoid losing power, knowing now that its loss would mean their death.
Yet any US-led alliance that defeats the ruling group would have to try and keep the state together. The Kurds, notoriously and murderously divided against themselves, would demand their own state - one that they would see as extending into Iran and Turkey. The Shia leaders would wish to use the victory to Islamicise the state, not a promising prelude to accommodation with the west or with liberal values. The Sunnis would be in resentful and frightened retreat. The leaderships of the exiled groups have often been out of the country for decades.
These considerations should give us serious pause: and those who wish to pursue the war should produce a reasonable account of how to deal with post-invasion Iraq, as much (even more) than of how to deal with pre-invasion Saddam. Yet pessimism has to be modified. In interventions over the past decade by combinations of North American and European states - in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree in Haiti and Sierra Leone - the results have been better than most expected.
In all cases, slaughter and repression have been largely or completely stopped. Human rights are being observed, if not everywhere. Refugees have returned to their homes, if not in all cases. Families are able to establish homes, children to be educated, women to emerge as public figures. Modest economic growth has been resumed. Democratic elections are on the horizon, and limited elections have usually already happened. In all cases, new problems have emerged - largely those of figuring out how to pass government back to the politicians in states where deep quarrels and resentments still divide them and may make democratic politics impossible - but these are problems of peace, not of war.
There is a second cause for caution, however: the US administration, which is leading the war party, has not been able to formulate a convincing narrative of war and its purpose. It has done the relatively easy part - which is to show that Saddam is a monstrous threat, even if many are not disposed to believe it, or are frightened to face up to the consequences. But it has not shown how it will govern a country that it has "liberated" from Saddam; or how it will deal with Arab alarm and resentment at what will be seen as an attack on an Arab leadership which enjoys prestige because of its aggressive anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism; or how it will seek a just settlement in Palestine.
As Brent Scowcroft, friend and former aide to President George Bush Snr, wrote in the Wall Street Journal of 15 August: "There would be an explosion of outrage against us. We would be seen as ignoring a key interest in the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow American interest. Even without Israeli involvement, the result could well destabilise Arab regimes in the region . . . . "
More broadly, we have heard from the US no account of how it will act in the increasingly pressing issues of global justice and global management - except a rather contemptuous shrug. This is an administration that could undertake a just war - but which has not sufficiently just credentials for doing so. In its denigration of the UN and Nato, in its withdrawal from or spurning of international agreements, in the narrowness of its focus on the war on terrorism, the US administration has failed to complement its perception that rogues need to be policed with the insight that justice must go beyond crime and punishment. US Republican ideologues tend to reply that terrorists are not driven by concern for the oppressed of the world, and that is true (indeed, they tend to oppress them further). But, as Michael Hirsh, former foreign editor of Newsweek, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: "The inequities of globalisation feed a general anti-westernism which is a seedbed for Islamism."
The European left needs to face its own insufficiencies, one of which is a colossal reluctance to recognise state or group terror and tyranny, especially in those parts of the world it prefers to see as victims of western imperialism. The fault is not confined to the left: the running before the wind by the Major government, when confronted with the Bosnian crisis, was one of its largest shames. But Labour supported intervention in Kosovo. Now it gives principled support to pressure on Saddam, and couples that with a developing vision for combating poverty and with attempts to find a mechanism for supporting failed states. Those in the Labour movement who oppose the action are either unaware of the nature of Saddam's threat, or blinded by their desire to seek an imperialist villain. Western imperialism isn't the problem any more.
But the US needs to face up to its own interventionism with more than an assertion that it is morally justified to seek out terror. The US needs to return to the insights of the Clinton and Bush Snr eras - even if practice lagged behind those insights - which held that engagement and a regard for mechanisms of justice and dialogue are the best guarantors of global order. Police action is necessary for order. It is insufficient to ensure it.