2003: the road to war

At some point in 2003, barring miracles, there will be war with Iraq. As every day passes, the impossibility of the task facing the UN weapons inspectors - to prove a negative - becomes clearer. The US administration admits that it cannot produce a smoking missile - comparable, say, to the spy-plane photos of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 - but argues that it has sufficient circumstantial evidence to justify an attack. Such evidence would not satisfy a court of law in either Britain or America; but Saddam Hussein is to be assumed guilty until proven innocent.

The war will divide the west, both between and within nations. Veteran commentators such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger argue that even in America, opposition exceeds that to the Vietnam war, which aroused no significant protest for several years after US troops first entered combat in 1962. Polls show headline support for the war but great doubts over President Bush's motives and justifications; while Lewis Lapham, editor of the New York-based Harper's Magazine, testifies that aerospace engineers, computer programmers, retired admirals and others well beyond "the stigma of effete, liberal intellectualism" fiercely oppose the Iraq adventure. In Britain, polls show the population split down the middle. Although many say they would follow the UN, the likelihood is that when war comes, they will see a UN mandate, if there is one, as the result of a diplomatic stitch-up rather than of a dispassionate survey of the case for invasion.

Most wars face some opposition at the outset (later support depends on battlefield success or failure), but there are few precedents for opposition on this scale, particularly in a war that may involve (at least according to those determined to prosecute it) a home front. This in itself ought to be a powerful argument against action. A decision to wage war is not just another new Labour initiative that people don't quite grasp, like public-private partnership or beacon schools, and over which they will shrug their shoulders and respond to a Tony Blair "trust me" appeal. It involves complicity in murder; if the justification doesn't convince one's own people (who include a million Muslims), it is probably an inadequate one.

Nevertheless, the possibility, even the probability, is that the US and its allies will be successful - that by the end of 2003, Saddam Hussein will be out of power; that western casualties will be small, and Iraqi casualties in the thousands rather than tens of thousands; that there will be no significant unrest in other Arab states or even attacks on western targets, beyond what al-Qaeda might have mounted in any case. Would that prove opponents of the war wrong? Would that not be a happy outcome for both the Iraqi people and for the world?

The first answer is that there are many ways in which western governments can improve the world, rescuing people from misery and death (see Barbara Gunnell, page 34), without resort to violence. The second answer is that it depends on what follows. Some western critics of the first Gulf war in 1990 predicted disaster for the US-led coalition. There was no immediate military disaster; yet in the long term, the US military association with Saudi Arabia was what led Osama Bin Laden to launch al-Qaeda at western targets. Even the short-term outcomes might have been less favourable if western leaders had pursued the Iraqi army to Baghdad and "finished off" Saddam, as senior members of the US administration now say they should have done.

This is not to say the first Gulf war was unjustified: there was a clear breach of international law. And there it should rest: in that case, you could say, the risk had to be taken. But a gamble is still a gamble, even if the outcome is favourable - and the proposition now is to gamble with other people's lives and, given the weapons that are likely to be used, perhaps with the lives of unborn children. No doubt Saddam's regime will be succeeded by one less abusive of human rights; but, like the successors to the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to meet Amnesty International's standards. If it is to deserve the moral authority that it claims, the west cannot pick and choose on human rights, quoting them as and when convenient, and using its own mysterious calculus as to what degree of abuse, in what circumstances, justifies action. Nobody suggests that the US should invade, say, China or even North Korea. But western countries should refrain from arming dubious regimes, where the principle of "guilty until proven innocent" may be justly applied - Algeria, for example, to which the US now proposes to sell weapons, has a vastly improved human rights record, but not one that yet inspires complete confidence. The left is sometimes accused of being soft on tyrants because they happen to oppose America; but the US has a more shameful record of being soft on tyrants who happen to support it.

The truth is that this US administration has little interest in human rights. Liberals may wring their hands about the Iraqi people, but the US invaders will not. Their motives are an unholy mix of a wish to secure hegemony over a strategically and economically vital region, and a near-paranoid view of the threat that Iraq poses to the American homeland. Intentions matter, and so does the way in which they are perceived. As Christina Lamb reports (page 32), support for Bin Laden and hatred for America are penetrating the fabric of life in the Muslim world. The war in Afghanistan, like the first Gulf war, may have seemed successful, but there is now every sign that the Taliban are re-establishing themselves in Pakistan.

The coming year will see many voices raised against war, from across the political spectrum. They will need to be clear, consistent and unillusioned.