I can’t help feeling guilty about not joining in the high-minded clamour of protest over Mr Blair’s apparent determination to support an American attack on Iraq (once Mr Bush, Mr Cheney and the roaming general have sorted out the Israelis and Palestinians). My problem is that as between on the one hand doing nothing now, thus allowing Saddam Hussein a few more years to build up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and, probably, to develop some kind of nuclear weapon: and, on the other hand, mounting a military operation soon to destroy his WMD and their raw materials, and ideally to rid the region of his régime, the latter course—acting now—seems to me plainly the less dangerous. I don’t think one can seriously doubt that Saddam poses a uniquely serious threat. He has been developing WMD (nuclear, biological and chemical) for more than a decade; and he has shown himself to be a quite extraordinarily unscrupulous dictator: occupying Kuwait, using chemical weapons against his own Kurds, ruling with Hitlerian-scale ferocity and repression, turning international sanctions to his own advantage at the expense of the lives of his own citizens, defying international opinion by resisting all efforts to get him to agree to an adequate weapons inspection régime. Can anyone truthfully say that there is no appreciable risk of such a man being prepared to allow a terrorist group (al-Qaeda or some other) to have access to a biological or chemical weapon for use against a target in the US or Europe? Or of Saddam using his possession of these weapons, including medium-range missiles and possibly primitive nuclear weapons, in order to threaten and blackmail other countries in the region or indeed elsewhere?
Of course there’s a genuine dilemma here, as with all arguments for and against pre-emptive strikes: the risks of early action before the threat has become a reality are definable and inescapable, whereas delay leaves options open, and there’s always the hope that the threat won’t after all materialise. In this case, though, giving Saddam more time before intervening is so overwhelmingly likely to intensify the threat, and to aggravate the damage he’s eventually likely to do, that the case for acting now fairly clearly outweighs the case for delay. At which point the argument becomes a semi-technical one: is a military operation to destroy the WMD and the Saddam régime feasible? could such an operation have a good chance of success without causing disproportionate loss of innocent lives?, questions on which we can’t usefully form a firm view without a knowledge of the military and intelligence factors which few of us possess. Getting authority for an attack in a Security Council resolution wouldn’t be easy unless the Chinese and Russians (and French?) had somehow been persuaded, or squared. An invasion from Kuwait might be possible, but the preparatory build-up would take months, and heaven knows what Saddam would do while that was going on. Current signs seem to be that he may play for time and muddy waters by inviting the UN inspectors back, but on terms that will require months, even years, of negotiation to agree on. Awkward to attack Iraq while that was going on, and impossible once the inspectors were actually back on the ground. But the Americans would no doubt veto any return of inspectors on terms other than full unfettered access to everything, everywhere, any time. And they would be right to do so.
Maybe the practical difficulties of a successful military campaign to destroy the WMD and their raw materials and to overthrow Saddam will prove to be insuperable (although it would be a brave General who was willing to say that to Bush and Rumsfeld!), in which case there’s no more to be said. But that’s different from saying that an operation against Saddam with those objectives would be inherently wrong, even if it could be pulled off. I see no grounds here for parading through the streets with banners, or bombarding my unfortunate MP with e-mails.