The most appalling miscalculation

Behind all the arguments over the impending war in Iraq lies a curiously undebated subject: the risk that Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction either before America attacks him or immediately after an attack. Your judgement of the risk depends on whether you believe that the Iraqi dictator possesses such weapons. But those who most fervently support war are also those who most fervently believe that Saddam is hiding something, and that he has the potential and the will to threaten Europe and America, as well as his Middle Eastern neighbours. If they are right in this belief, the logic of their whole approach to Iraq is at least questionable, and appears to ignore Bismarck's definition of preventive war as "suicide from fear of death", the wisdom of which was fatally forgotten by European statesmen in 1914.

Even critics of the war tend to argue that Saddam is no danger at all, rather than focus on the dangers of Iraqi retaliation. Perhaps they fear appearing wimpish or decadent and perhaps there is a connection to folk memories of Neville Chamberlain talking about the absurdity of trying on gas masks in Britain because of "faraway . . . people of whom we know nothing". Since neither the British nor the Americans are at present trying on gas masks - or being asked to make any preparations beyond maintaining a vague "vigilance" - one wonders if the White House and Downing Street have given the dangers any thought at all.

If Saddam indeed has terrible weapons, and if Washington is indeed determined to leave him no escape short of disarmament (and perhaps, given the talk about "regime change", not even that), he surely has nothing to lose by unleashing those weapons. If he is thought likely to lash out without provocation, why would he not lash out with the US at his jugular? He may not be able to strike effectively against London or New York (though we cannot be sure), but there is certainly no reason why he should not use his most destructive weapons against invaders, with terrible consequences for his own land and people - a consideration that ought to give pause to those who support a war on human-rights grounds.

In the current issue of the Washington-based Foreign Affairs magazine, Richard Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, asks why the US has abandoned deterrence. It worked against the Soviet Union, against Mao's China and even against Iraq in 1991, in so far as the implicit threat of nuclear retaliation deterred Saddam from deploying the biological and chemical weapons he then undoubtedly had. (Deterrence didn't work in 1990 because America, an erstwhile Saddam ally, failed to give clear signals about the consequences of invading Kuwait.)

In each case, there were alternatives, vigorously pressed in Washington: for pre-emptive strikes against Stalin and, as late as 1968, against Mao, and for a march on Baghdad to overthrow Saddam. Stalin and Mao are long dead, and their successors, although bad enough, proved less aggressive and ruthless. Why has the US no faith that what worked in Russia and China will work in Iraq? The chances of Saddam being dead in a few years, either from natural causes (he is 65) or from assassination, must be as high as the chances of him acquiring nuclear weapons and using them. Could it be, as Mr Betts suggests, that Americans think it "presumptuous for a country such as Iraq to aspire to paralyse US power" and undignified for the US to strike a balance of terror with Arab upstarts? Deterrence, too, has risks; but the risks seem far lower than those involved in attacking Saddam. Moreover, even if we accept the arguments for preventive war rather than deterrence, the American position seems flawed, and even more so the British position, with its insistence on the minutiae of UN procedure. Why move so slowly and publicly towards an invasion? A pre-emptive strike is made effective by the element of surprise. Yet to quote Mr Betts again, this is "the most telegraphed punch in military history".

In reality, the proponents of war have failed to make the case that Saddam poses a significant danger, either now or in the future; the suspicion remains that President Bush's true motives are strategic and political. But even on its own terms, pro-war opinion is wrong. Alas, the US has painted itself into a corner. It cannot now retreat from war without a dangerous loss of credibility. Worse, it has painted Saddam into a corner, and cast him so far beyond the normal rules of diplomacy that it cannot even offer him a parachute such as safe passage to Belarus. We must pray that the British and US governments are wrong about Saddam's weapons. If they are right, they could well have made the most appalling miscalculation.

Best remembered for his lunches

Obituarists waxed eloquently about how Lord (Roy) Jenkins, who died on 5 January, transformed Britain, created new Labour, invented multiculturalism, led the Swinging Sixties and no doubt flew to the dark side of the moon on his days off. (For a more sober view, see Joe Haines, page 16.) But the best and most telling tribute came from Robert Harris, the well-known thriller writer, in the Daily Telegraph. Mr Harris recalled how Jenkins so enjoyed a recent parody of his own writing that he asked for the address of the author, Craig Brown, so that he could congratulate him. Jenkins was pompous in both person and writing; Mr Brown caught his ornate, self-important tone perfectly and, some might think, cruelly. But Jenkins could laugh at his own faults. He was also one of the last people in England to insist on proper daily lunches. A man is better remembered for such things than for allegedly changing the course of history.