The wars we should be fighting

The arguments have been heard, the speeches made, the resignations proffered (or not, as the case may be) and the mass protests duly ignored. Public opinion has apparently been squared, probably by the shameless pretence - in which the media, including the BBC, colluded - that US and British leaders had tried diplomacy in search of a peaceful solution, but failed. (In fact, the only diplomatic effort was to get other countries to abandon peace and support war.) By the time you read this, the bombs will have started to fall. On the merits of this war, there is very little more to be said.

So let us turn to the wars that ought to be fought, to the human tragedies and injustices that receive only a fraction of the public money, high-level government planning and media attention, and none of the political grandstanding that will be devoted to an invasion of Iraq. Let us consider, in the words Tony Blair used to the House of Commons on Tuesday, "what we know to be right".

We know it to be right, for example, that everybody on the planet should have clean drinking water and hygienic sanitation. Yet more than a billion people have no access to safe water and, as a result, two million children die each year - a toll that dwarfs anything in Saddam's Iraq or any likely casualties in war. As David Mepham, a former government adviser, writes in a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research: "For billions, going to the toilet means a stinking hole in the ground infested with flies and bacteria." Water is currently the subject of an international meeting in Kyoto, for details of which you will search most of the British and American press in vain. We also know it to be right that everybody on the planet should get the drugs needed to combat disease, particularly Aids and TB. Yet a third of the world's population have no access to essential medicines and, in Africa alone, two million people have died of Aids in the past year. We know it to be right that everybody on the planet should have enough to eat. Yet in Eritrea, for example, 70 per cent face imminent famine.

Some things are being done to end these injustices, and we know that Mr Blair cares because he keeps telling us he does. But where are the strict deadlines, the inspectors, the urgent meetings in the Azores, the announcements of exhausted patience? A deadline of 2002 was set for agreement on how poor countries could import cheaper copies of patented medicines. Pharmaceutical companies have lobbied hard to limit both the drugs and the countries covered by the agreement. The US government has largely backed them - because, many suspect, the Republicans received heavy campaign funding from big drugs companies. A World Trade Organisation meeting in Geneva last month failed once more to reach an agreement on drugs. And, at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg last year, deadlines were set for clean water and sanitation. But the prospects already look grim, with private companies increasingly unwilling to invest in very poor countries where they can see few profits, and western governments reluctant to trust a public sector that they see as inefficient, wasteful and corrupt. As for famine, the UN has received $4m from rich countries to help Eritrea. But it asked for $163m; it got even smaller fractions of what is needed to help other stricken countries such as Liberia and Guinea.

Like all war leaders (including himself on the eve of the Afghanistan bombing), Mr Blair promises vigorous attention to these matters and a better world generally when conflict is over. This is no time for cynicism; let us simply believe him and demand compliance in due course.

Clare Short: a qualified defence

When anybody - politician, sportsman, Hollywood celebrity - is reviled by the entire world, it is right to take a second look. Clare Short, described by the Daily Mirror as a disgrace and a "political pariah", appears to have behaved capriciously and foolishly. What will be unforgivable to those who sincerely oppose war is not so much that she failed to deliver on a promise, but that she has given credibility to the pro-war propaganda. The entire charade of the second UN resolution - which was never going to be obtained except by duress - has been used to shift the blame for war elsewhere. Having been told for months that Saddam Hussein is an utterly intransigent man, we are now expected to believe that he would have taken the path of peace if only the French had not threatened their veto. Ms Short accepted this line and accepted, too, that bombing Iraq is part of some grand humanitarian design. Many waverers will think that if she was convinced, they should be convinced, too. So Ms Short should have kept quiet from the start.

Yet we frequently complain that our politicians behave like robots, that they fear to waver from the agreed party line, that they never listen to argument. We should not therefore so readily denounce those who expose their uncertainties and changes of mind. Ms Short could easily have kept it all private, stitching up behind-the-scenes deals with the Prime Minister. She deserves some credit for making her debate with her conscience and her boss so public. Doubt is a more common human condition than journalists and politicians acknowledge: most people, on most issues, find it hard to make up their minds and, if truth be told, tend to agree with the last person they talked to. What Ms Short has in effect been saying these past few days is: "I don't know". These are words too rarely heard in public life. On that basis, the New Statesman enters a qualified defence on Ms Short's behalf.

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