Let Iraq into the free market

It is a great pity that the British Foreign Office's "long and thoughtful" review of the effects of its policies in Iraq could not have taken place before last weekend's bombing. Leave aside, for a moment, any damage or loss of life caused by the air raids themselves - even the Iraqi propaganda machine did not claim more than a few deaths. Leave aside, even, the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi population, and particularly on children, as set out in compelling detail by John Pilger in a succession of New Statesman columns. Leave aside the humanitarian issues and consider merely the cold geopolitical realities.

Tyrannies are very rarely overthrown by economic sanctions and international isolation. The eastern European communist regimes understood this very well, because they strove to keep the outside world at bay, prevent their people from travelling abroad, stem the inward flow of western goods. Only in the era of glasnost, when the Soviet Union became more open to foreign influences, did communism collapse. Countries under siege tend to rally behind their governments, as Britain did behind Churchill in the Second World War. The two dictators who have been the most consistent targets of American hostility and attempts at isolation - Libya's Gaddafi and Cuba's Castro - are among the most firmly entrenched in the world, their longevity the envy of other rulers.

Saddam Hussein shows every sign that he is now in the same category and that his hold on power will end only in his death. His is the kind of regime that is strengthened, not weakened, by sanctions. These strangle all independent forms of economic activity, thus making the population more dependent on the government and enriching a government-sponsored elite, which knows how to turn scarcity into profit. How curious that the two western countries that believe most strongly in the liberating and democratising virtues of the free market and the free movement of goods and capital should believe that the opposite will work in Iraq.

None of this might matter - except to the cruelly oppressed Iraqi people - were it not for the wider international situation. A decade ago, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the world showed a rare degree of unanimity. The UN succeeded where the League of Nations had failed in the 1930s: it repelled aggression over national boundaries. Now, Britain and America bomb Baghdad without the slightest reference to the UN. The alliance against Saddam grows weaker by the day. This is precisely the moment when Arabs, humiliated by the treatment of the Palestinians, enraged by the emergence of an Israeli prime minister whom they regard as a war criminal, look for a new champion. And who better than a man who has successfully defied the world's only superpower for ten years? Most Arab governments, to be sure, still loathe and fear Saddam, but even the most pro-western of them increasingly pay lip-service to support for Iraq because that has become the test of their patriotism.

US policy on Iraq is a muddle, a disaster and an outrage. For Saddam's people, there is nothing but starvation, disease and misery. Oppression continues unchecked. The "no-fly zones" did nothing, and could do nothing, to stop Saddam's troops from firing into crowds at a Shi'a demonstration, killing several hundred people. The flow of Kurdish refugees to Europe continues, as the stricken vessel off the French Riviera showed last weekend. In the other direction, despite sanctions, arms flow into Iraq - or, at least (if we believe the reasons given for the bombing raid), enough radar and anti-aircraft equipment to threaten British and American pilots and enough rebuilt Scuds to cause Israel to test anti-missile defences. Whether Saddam can build more deadly weapons remains a mystery, but truth and security are more likely to be established in a country that is open enough to give spies (and, for that matter, saboteurs) a chance to roam than in one where UN inspectors can in effect move only with official permission.

In these circumstances, British support for the US looks almost comically craven. Yet politicians in office, surrounded by sycophants and chauffeurs, rarely have any idea of how they appear to other people. After the bombing of Baghdad, Robin Cook and Tony Blair had to be told, even by new Labour loyalists. That is why we now have the long and thoughtful review (let us hope it is not too long for the thousands of Iraqi children who face death) and that is why the bombing may, after all, prove a blessing.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more