There is no virtue or safety in a war like this.
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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.