The poll is clear enough. We
definitely think President Saddam Hussein is a menace and a liar,
we suspect he’s a threat, but we don’t want war. Not yet. Not
without more time, more inspection, wider agreement. We think the
Americans are dead keen, though, and wish they weren’t.
It’s a telling picture which reflects, I think, not badly on
the nation’s common sense. Few peoples go happily to war
nowadays. Fear for our fighters is augmented by worry about our
“enemies” because global media have given us a clear picture
of the suffering wars bring, particularly to the poor. It is no
longer easy to be robustly unimaginative or romantically heroic
about warfare, while leafing through engravings of Our Boys
defying savage hordes. Living in a multi-ethnic society sharpens
our horror of all human suffering, whatever face it wears.
Persuading a nation to war is harder every time.
The trouble is that normal people approve only of wars which
make them feel either safer or more virtuous. This one does
neither. To take the selfish motive first: entering this war
doesn’t make us feel safer at all. It is not hard to see that
Saddam is a low-rent Stalin, an oppressor of his people, a terror
to his neighbours and a collector of nasty weapons who wishes us
ill. However, the main British fear is not a nuclear strike or an
armada unloading Iraqi tanks on Dover beach. It is terrorist
infiltration and attack: a few guys in a bedsitter with a
suitcaseful of death.
Despite grandiose American promises to “drain the swamp” we
know perfectly well that life and terrorism are far messier than
that. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated that once hatred is inflamed it
can lie dormant for months and years, planning random revenges.
Britain is an easy country to get into, and considering that we
can’t even keep out contaminated meat, the chances of checking
every case for leftover poisons or plutonium from Saddam’s
ramshackle armoury in years to come is pretty thin. It is hatred
which winds up the risk of terrorism: war increases hatred a
hundredfold. So no, we don’t feel safer. It would be truly
wonderful to see Saddam toppled and democracy established in Iraq.
But unless we are extraordinarily lucky with a preternaturally
short war, it may create tens of thousands more enemies, more
terrorists, more risk for our nervous cities.
This brings me to the less selfish of the motives which can
make war a tolerable option: a sense of virtue, of riding to the
rescue. The most persuasive voices for war are from Saddam’s
domestic opposition, and yesterday Mr Blair was rallying the
centre Left with the words “since Saddam’s regime is . . .
probably the most brutal, oppressive and dictatorial in the world,
and its principal victims are the Iraqi people, it would be odd
for anyone on the Left to shed tears at his departure”.
Yes: but it is the thought of that probably protracted
departure that troubles the conscience. He will fight. He will use
his people’s suffering as a shield. We may have to hack our way
towards him through the bodies of children. While there is the
faintest hope left of neutralising him without it, war is morally
unthinkable. Almost half the Iraqi population is under 14. A great
number of these children of a once-affluent society are seriously
malnourished. Child mortality in central and southern Iraq has
risen steeply under our sanctions, due to contaminated water
supplies and lack of medicines. Two thirds of all families live on
the edge of disaster, on tiny earnings and rationed food.
Dependence on imports is great, not least because under the United
Nations “oil-for-food” humanitarian programme, oil revenues
may not be spent on locally grown produce so the farmers can’t
prosper. Any event — like a war — interfering with imports
could condemn a million children to death.
Some, of course, prefer to believe that all Iraqis are enemies.
A correspondent to this paper yesterday cited the “Jerusalem
Army” civilian militia, quoting a woman threatening to skin and
gut American soldiers like rabbits. He wrote with an unedifying
sneer: “These are the people who, I assume, will be breathlessly
identified by the BBC as ‘innocent civilians’ if any are
killed in a second Gulf war.” Well, perhaps that militiawoman
did posture a bit: but meanwhile another Iraqi woman with four
children is just as convincingly quoted, saying: “No one here
has prepared for an emergency, by storing food for example. We
cannot afford to make any kind of preparation or to pay for
transport to move if we needed to. Only important people will be
able to save themselves because they have cars . . .”
Most of those facts come from Save the Children, and indeed the
mind is carried irresistibly back to that fine charity’s
foundation in 1919, when Eglantyne Jebb appealed for food to be
sent to the starving children of blockaded Germany. She was
opposed by voices saying that we should not feed “enemy
children” to make war on us again. George Bernard Shaw,
donating, remarked: “Personally, I have no enemies under seven
years of age.”
So no: war doesn’t feel like a step towards virtue, any more
than a step towards safety. It doesn’t even feel — as
Afghanistan did — like vengeance for the twin towers, because
nobody has yet made a convincing case for links between Saddam and
al-Qaeda. Indeed if anything is going to throw the ordinary
unfanatical people of Iraq into the arms of al-Qaeda it will be
the sight of their children crying for food and their aged parents
blown apart by bombs.
War is the very, very last resort. We may be bored by a daily
Blix bulletin, frustrated by Saddam’s gamesmanship and irritated
by our weaselling European partners. We may be unnerved by the way
that uncertainty drives stock markets down, and suspect unworthily
that they would bounce up again at the start of a short, sharp
action. We may even be tempted by President Bush’s
simple-hearted conviction that any evil can be swatted if you go
in hard enough. We may be fed up of all the stalling.
But stalling is good. Stalling is hopeful. The Iraqi weapons
programme is not going to make progress anyway during this tense,
tightly monitored stand-off. Boredom and frustration and the
taunts of a cornered tyrant are better than taking responsibility
for mass mutilation, starvation, disease, and child refugees dying
in minefields. Delay is better than splitting Europe, Nato, the
UN, Britain itself. War is the highest of high-risk strategies.
This is no Falklands conflict, conveniently set on isolated rocks
thousands of miles away and conducted exclusively by servicemen,
with Our Boys receiving the grateful blessing of local civilians.
It is not even a Gulf War, which at least was provoked by the
invasion of Kuwait, and during which we were still naive enough to
believe that stuff about “smart bombs” nipping round corners,
sniffing out baddies and steering clear of nurseries. It is harder
to swallow than the Balkan wars, because there vicious fighting
was already under way without us. As for Afghanistan, the
satisfying precedent of toppling the Taleban has had the shine
taken off it by the present stories of suffering refugees, wasted
aid and underaudited, ill-judged UN cackhandedness in the
aftermath of war.
But it may actually prove a well-disguised blessing that, of
all the conflicts of recent years, the task of justifying this war
to the electorate in Britain has fallen to a government whose
support is plummeting, that teeters on the edge of world
recession, that has served long enough to be heartily blamed for
chaotic public services, and whose honesty and competence are
daily called in question. The business of the fake
“intelligence” dossier plagiarised off ancient internet sites
by the No 10 press office, complete with misplaced commas, was not
a small thing: it was truly disastrous for the warmakers’ cause.
Even committed supporters winced. Every Rumsfeld infelicity, every
verbal stupidity from President Bush, every white lie from our own
Government, increases the number of us who tell pollsters that
much as we hate Saddam, we don’t want war.
And every day that this unease delays the brutality is a good
day. It creates another chance of Saddam disarming, fleeing or
being shot by some heroic member of his entourage. It gives Iraqis
and their children another dawn, another 24 hours to hope for the
best. We may be a little bit frightened; but we’re not nearly as
frightened as they are.