War: the case has failed

Could anybody have imagined, a year ago, that we would now be so close to war with Iraq? Think back to how most people reacted when it first emerged that a faction within the US government wished to go to war against Saddam Hussein; how the idea prompted horror and incredulity; how improbable it seemed that our own government could go along with such madness. Think of the appalled reaction to President Bush's warning that he had the whole "axis of evil" in his sights. Think of the fears not only for world stability and for our own safety but for the lives of innocent Iraqis. Forget all the hair-splitting arguments of the past year about UN resolutions, the merits of inspections, the weapons that Saddam may or may not be hiding, the supposed links with al-Qaeda. That first reaction was the right one.

This issue of the New Statesman goes to press on the eve of a demonstration that, according to some estimates, will be of a size unprecedented in modern British history. That may seem extraordinary. So may our poll (page 18) suggesting that more than a third of the country opposes war with Iraq in any circumstances. But pinch yourself and remember that what is truly extraordinary is that we are talking of war at all. That the wilder fragments of American righteousness, paranoia and militarism - the Dr Strangelove tendency - would one day take over the White House was always the stuff of nightmare. The nightmare has come true; worse, Britain's Labour leaders have become part of it. Few of us had thought our government could be so foolish, so reckless, so careless of its own supporters' opinions and, towards a US Republican president, so craven.

The anti-war marchers have no hero (Saddam's name is not chanted as Ho Chi Minh's once was), no ideology, no national liberation movement to back. This is not Vietnam, where, as Daniel Ellsberg has put it, "We [the US] were not on the wrong side; we were the wrong side." Nobody has any illusions about Saddam or his monstrous tyranny. The protesters have two simple responses to the prospect of war. First, it is wrong to kill and maim civilians - even as "collateral damage" - unless there is extreme provocation and all other means of countering it have been exhausted. The Falklands and the 1991 Gulf wars, against invading military forces, fulfilled those conditions. The present conflict does not. To say, as pro-war opinion on the left does, that more Iraqi people will die if Saddam is left alone than if the British and Americans bomb them - or that they would prefer death in war to life under the tyrant - is pure speculation, and a rather desperate justification. Even the most just wars do not result in a net saving of human life (Poland, "saved" in 1939, suffered far greater losses than Czechoslovakia, "betrayed" in 1938; and the Holocaust itself did not begin until the Second World War was under way), and this one seems particularly unlikely to do so, since 60 per cent of Iraqis are completely dependent on government food rations. Only the Iraqi people can say what price they would pay for liberation. We do not (and cannot) know, and the views of Iraqi exiles, who will not themselves be in the front line and who have their own political agendas, must be heard sympathetically but sceptically.

Second, war will make the world a more dangerous place. President Bush and Mr Blair argue precisely the opposite, trying to show, with mixed success, that Saddam is hiding or developing weapons of mass destruction; and also to show, with no success whatever (a solidarity message from Osama Bin Laden does not make Saddam a member of al-Qaeda any more than one from George Galloway makes him a member of Glasgow's Labour Party), that he has close links to terror groups. What they cannot convince people of - because it defies common sense - is that Saddam has any reason to use his weapons against us unless he is under attack or in imminent danger of one. To be sure, he used them against Iran in the 1980s, but that was with American support; he knows that this time the consequences would be calamitous for him.

The final, fallback argument of the British and US governments is that, in the new age of terrorism, it is too dangerous to tolerate regimes that have chosen to isolate themselves internationally. If they do not use weapons themselves, runs the argument, they will allow them to fall into the hands of terrorists. Yet it must be doubted that a proliferation of weapons in these countries is any more dangerous than their existence in the former Soviet Union or indeed in America itself (the latter being, almost certainly, the source of the anthrax attacks that caused such alarm last year). Moreover, by announcing that it is prepared to make pre-emptive strikes, the US simply adds to the risks. North Korea has already reversed its attempts at rapprochement and resumed its nuclear programme; Iran threatens to do the same. The pre-emptive strike is a game at which two can play.

To put Presidents Bush and Saddam on a par is not to equate the two morally (that would be absurd); it is merely to observe that American ambitions can themselves be a threat to world stability. As John Kampfner writes (page 16), the US aim is to establish a bridgehead of American values in a hostile region. That may seem a fine aim from New York or London, but not necessarily from Amman or Cairo. It is, after all, more than 500 years since Muslims were at the gates of Vienna; to many people, it is not Islamic nations that now look like the aggressive and expansionist ones.

The case made for war must be like the case made for guilt in a court of law: it must be beyond all reasonable doubt. That case has not been made, and it has patently failed before the jury of public opinion. Tony Blair should accept the verdict.