The costs of war: democracy in danger

The temptation for those who have always opposed war in Iraq is to hope that when the bombing starts - as it must very soon - it all goes badly wrong. The sweetest thing in human affairs is to say "I told you so", and tens of thousands of civilian deaths, mass disease and starvation, floods of refugees, heavy losses of US and British troops, violent uprisings throughout the Islamic world, collapse on the financial markets and the eventual resignation of a chastened Tony Blair would seem a triumphant vindication of all the warnings issued in recent weeks. But those outcomes are in no way to be desired, nor are most of them very likely. The happiest result for humanity in general, and the Iraqi people in par- ticular, is a speedy and complete American-British victory and the swift departure of Saddam Hussein. A very large and decisive full stop needs to be placed after that statement.

But no war at all would have been a happier result, and not just for the sake of avoiding all the terrible risks listed above. The costs of war, we should have learnt by now, are to be accounted over years, even decades, not days. The upshot of the First World War - fascism in Europe - could not possibly have been foreseen on Armistice Day, 1918. The first Gulf war, which seemed so comprehensive a victory and so justifiable a cause at the time, seems to have sown the seeds of Osama Bin Laden's anti-US hatred. Israel is only now discovering the costs of routing its Arab enemies in 1967 and 1973: that the security it so craved is more elusive than ever.

There is also the more mundane consideration (mundane, that is, to those who support wars from lofty geopolitical and "humanitarian" standpoints) that all modern conflicts leave behind serious environmental damage and lethal weapons. An Iraqi mother may need some persuading to rejoice over Saddam's overthrow if her child then gets blown up by a cluster bomb. And this, remember, is the optimistic scenario: Iraqis will need even more persuading of the merits of being liberated if Saddam actually responds with chemical and biological attacks and the US then carries out Condoleezza Rice's promise of "national destruction".

These are the imponderables. Four other long-term results of war can be stated with greater confidence. First, the threat to world security. The stated intention of President Bush's policy is to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He has already achieved the precise opposite: the inescapable message sent out by his threat to Iraq is that any country likely to come into conflict with the US or its allies had best acquire nuclear weapons quickly. Once in the nuclear club, you're pretty well inviolable. This is the lesson drawn by North Korea, which already has conventional capacities far superior to Iraq's. President Bush's threats have failed to deter Iran from continuing to build nuclear reactors or Russia from helping her. The US can hope to achieve "regime change" in Iraq, it is increasingly clear, only because Saddam is weak, not because he is strong.

Second, the damage to the United Nations. Whether or not it delivers a second resolution is now almost irrelevant, and that so many Labour MPs set so much store by it suggests a certain moral myopia. A body that carried at least a smidgen of authority is exposed as a forum for bribery and intimidation, where the strong seek to buy legitimacy for what they propose to do anyway. Far from strengthening the UN by persuading President Bush to go through the motions of following its procedures, Mr Blair has irreparably weakened it; better for all concerned if it had stayed above the conflict, denouncing the US as it would any other rogue state.

Third, the prospect of American hegemony. Under the Monroe Doctrine of the 19th century, as elaborated by the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, the US reserved the right to intervene against anything on or near the American continent that it perceived as a threat. The Bush regime has extended the doctrine to the entire planet, and perhaps logically so given the range of US corporations and banks and its voracious consumption of resources. Such dominance will be exercised in nobody's interests but America's, a point readily grasped by the French, who are always being criticised for acting in French interests. US interests may sometimes coincide with liberal internationalist aims, but those who think that humanitarianism can piggy-back on US realpolitik are simply deluding themselves. True, the US no longer wants "strong men" to resist communist insurgency; it prefers softer power which will open up markets to US business. But, where necessary, it happily tolerates corruption and tyranny.

Fourth, the blow to democracy. Empire - a term we can safely use now that the New York Times Magazine has given its imprimatur - is not readily compatible with democratic procedure. With their boundaries set wide, and potential enemies numerous, imperial powers cannot delay action while elected representatives troop through lobbies or focus groups deliberate; their leaders are compelled to take a larger view, unavailable to mere mortals, and to some degree rightly so since their decisions will affect millions who have no vote in the imperial heartland. Equally, they must often restrict civil liberties for the sake of security: the paradox of power, for both individuals and nations, is that it makes them more vulnerable, not less so. All this also applies to imperial allies, so that Mr Blair can be at odds with his party and his country (to an extent quite unprecedented in British history), and yet still believe in the legitimacy of his actions.

But the course, it seems, is set. Those who oppose war must hope for a quick end and a painless liberation for Iraq. The goal now is to stop anything like it happening again.