The left discredits itself by pursuing the wrong target

The anti-war movement, argues John Lloyd, is guilty of the worst kind of moral equivalence, equating

As the time nears for a decision on the invasion of Iraq, support for that invasion within the European left has dwindled to a very small constituency. Of the ruling social democratic parties, only the British is fully in support: the German, Greek and Swedish leftist governments are all against. For those parties out of power, opposition to the war is fairly uniform - though capable of causing rifts and dissension, especially on the Italian left.

A familiar trope is equivalence - that one side is as bad as the other, that Bush is as bad as Saddam, or Bin Laden. It is an old theme of the far left's during the cold war, one now being refurbished for use in every one of the left's many mansions. The cover of Tariq Ali's most recent book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, shows George Bush in a mullah-length beard. The Daily Mirror's TV advertising merged the images of Saddam and Bush into one. The Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting has described Saddam and Bush as "two erratic, angry men, both of whom control quantities of lethal weapons and both of whom are making a mockery of the UN and any concept of international law".

It says much about the left's state of mind - and how it has been seduced by far-left strategies - that it equates the leader of a state that has an elective democracy, free media, an exceptionally lively civil society and a history of anti-imperialism with a dictator who has murdered thousands of his own people, who rules by fear and who seeks weapons of mass destruction in order to dominate neighbouring states. It also reveals how weak has been that strand of politics which tried to build up a case for intervention on humanitarian grounds, and how powerful are those who see that as a delusion and a rationale for naked power.

The left-wing majority is wrong on this, and becomes more wrong the more it allows the anti-Americans to take the lead in the debate. The impression now growing is that the left regards the US as more of a threat than Saddam - or indeed, almost any other dictator with weapons of mass destruction. The route of reasoned disagreement on grounds that war would be more dangerous than continued surveillance is increasingly being eschewed in favour of denouncing "Bush and Blair" as warmongers, set on invasion for the worst of reasons. In taking this route, the left is discrediting itself.

Some of these "worst of reasons" are easily dismissed. In a squib, Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, has summed them up as "elections, money, empire, oil and Dad". In fact, Iraq was not particularly important in the US midterm elections, and it is impossible to say the extent to which "Dad" - George W Bush taking revenge on Saddam for his alleged attempt to assassinate Bush Sr - is a consideration.

As for oil, Valerie Marcel of the Royal Institute of International Affairs concluded that "if protecting the interests of the American oil companies and getting more oil on to the market were the prime interests of the Bush administration, sanctions would be lifted against Iran and Libya". An invasion of Iraq and an attempted regime change there are risky and expensive ways of securing future oil supplies.

Oil is adduced as the main (sometimes the only) reason for the US pursuit of an invasion. Next comes America's imperial ambitions. The US is seen as an insatiably hegemonic power, trying to control as much of the world as it can either through proxies or directly - as in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Grenada, Haiti, Kosovo. Yet these countries are just as likely to suffer from a lack of intervention as from a surfeit of it. Haiti, where the US restored the elected and exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994, is politically shaky and economically devastated. Bosnia and Kosovo, whose independence and relative security US-led actions belatedly secured, are still highly dependent on western involvement - as is Macedonia. Interventions in the Balkans, militarily led by the US and subsequently largely staffed and paid for by the European Union, have given the region the hope of democratic development, economic growth and peace. But the political complexion will not necessarily favour the US, or the west. Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia, for example, is strongly resentful of the US and Britain for their attacks on Serbia during the Kosovo campaign.

Afghanistan is the most difficult area. Elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are filtering back through the refugee camps, and the warlord-governors who control almost all of the Afghan territory are becoming restless and mutually aggressive. Yet very large amounts of aid are flowing into the country. Famine was averted. Roughly two million Afghans have returned to their country. A semi-democratic government is in place in Kabul. Women have been liberated from servitude. Four million children - boys and girls - have returned to school. Afghanistan is much better for its people. The risk is that it slides back into war and tyranny if the international coalition withdraws.

The left often claims that the US and the west remain indifferent to poverty even as they increase their military threat. In fact, Bush has reversed - if modestly - the long decline in US aid, has committed extra funds to Africa, and last month announced a $15bn programme to combat Aids in Africa and the Caribbean - a commitment driven largely, it is reported, by influence from the Christian right. Britain's increase in aid has been proportionately larger than any other rich western state. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund and (especially) the World Bank are targeting more resources at the poorest countries, and have significantly softened their conditions for such resources in an effort to counteract the worst effects of poverty. The point is not that the west is doing enough; it is that it is doing more than before.

It is reasonable to ask if Iraq is best invaded or contained; it is much less so to see it as an abused victim suffering humiliation at the hands of a US-prodded United Nations. Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, judges that it has evaded the most serious questions about what it has done with large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Whether or not links are proved between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi leadership, the latter's record of internal suppression and external threat, coupled with systematic flouting of UN resolutions, renders it open to the charge of being an exceptional danger, at least in such an unstable region.

If Iraq, or any other terrorist state or group, were to succeed in a major act of terrorism in a western city, and leave tens of thousands dead or contaminated, civil liberties would at best be suspended; chaos and violence could be expected to grow and spread. States that sponsor terrorism now can put in the hands of a small group or an individual the means of mass destruction: as Michael Ignatieff has written, "evil has escaped the prison house of deterrence devised by the Westphalian order". It is a difficult judgement as to whether our tenuous security is better served by relaxing or increasing the pressure on terror-sponsoring states (in fact, realpolitik dictates that pressure will be at times increased, at times relaxed). The left has taken it as axiomatic that our security is best served by not pushing terrorists or their sponsors too far. The case is not proven, and can hardly amount to a principle.

The left has also assumed that an invasion, even if there is a swift end to the Saddam regime, will lead to chaos. But this account pays no heed to groups largely absent from the left's present world-view - the reformers within Arab states. These do exist though their voices are often drowned out by what is called "the Arab street", usually manipulated by ruling regimes to deflect protest away from their woeful stewardship of their societies. The best reason for confronting Iraq is to give space for reform and for the development of a critical intelligentsia, the institutions of civil society and some means of securing civil and human rights. These kinds of programmes are badly funded, by both the US and the EU; yet this has played no part in most leftists' protests.

Terror, by whomever practised or sponsored, is the denial of democratic procedure, debate and the space for compromise. Its explicit aim is to reduce and to cancel such a space, to present all claims as absolute, all demands as non-negotiable. Saddam has long been a pillar of terror. Electoral advantage, oil or revenge pale into insignificance as reasons for his removal beside the enormity of the challenge he presents to those values for which the democratic left has stood, and with which it has enormously benefited societies where it is strong. Yet, in a fit of anti-American indulgence, it has in the past year been driven further and further down a cul-de-sac of self-righteous protest - against the wrong target.