If Saddam steps out of line we must go straight to war

01.11.02 Publication:

There were three speakers on the panel – an American hawk, a European multilateralist and a Russian liberal MP – but it was the Russian who sprang the surprise. The topic was Iraq. The European audience was sceptical about George Bush´s views, and expected the Russian to feel the same. Not so. “We Russians understand Saddam Hussein,” he said, rather noisily. “He is a Stalin-like, totalitarian dictator who responds only to the threat of force. He must be surrounded by a military build-up, so that it is clear if he steps out of line he could be attacked within one hour.” “One hour!” he repeated, banging the table in case anyone had not quite got the point.

He is surely correct. It is the credible threat of war that has now made it possible that Saddam could be disarmed peacefully, under the terms of the new resolution the UN security council approved unanimously on November 8. That still, however, leaves a question hanging: if he calls the UN´s bluff by making a fake declaration on December 8, should the threat be carried out?

At this juncture in most debates, as in most columns on the topic in the Guardian, four notions pop up. One is that Saddam may be a bad man, but why single him out? Another is that America (and so now the other 14 members of the security council) is guilty of double standards for not also enforcing the many UN resolutions passed against Israel. A third is that the risks of war – civilian deaths, a wider conflict, more terrorism – exceed the potential benefits. And a fourth is that force should never be used to solve problems, except in direct self-defence.

Since there is so much talk of American unilateralism and of law, let´s start with “double standards”. Saddam is the ultimate unilateralist. He signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the chemical weapons convention, but then flouted both. He agreed to the UN´s ceasefire agreement in 1991, under which he was to give up his nuclear, chemical and bio-weapons programmes. He did not. The UN´s inspectors found that he lied repeatedly and concealed large stocks of such weapons. After 16 resolutions and 11 years of sanctions, all admirably multilateralist, something more must be done to enforce the resolutions. Multilateralism needs to be defended.

But what of Israel? Here critics are wrong about the UN resolutions. There are two sorts of security council resolution: those under “chapter 6” are non-binding recommendations dealing with the peaceful resolution of disputes; those under “chapter 7” give the council broad powers, including war, to deal with “threats to the peace … or acts of aggression”. All those relating to the Israeli-Arab conflict have been voted under chapter 6; those against Iraq have been under chapter 7. Moreover, the most famous resolution concerning Israel, number 242 of 1967, does not say what most people think it does. It calls on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, but only in the context of obligations set for both sides in the conflict, which neither has so far fulfilled.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves two sides. Saddam´s regime is bad all on its own. As a brutal violator of the human rights of his own people, Saddam ranks at least among the world´s five worst despots. He has invaded two of his neighbours, Iran and Kuwait, and has made no secret of his desire to dominate the region. Saddam may now be too old to fulfil that ambition personally, but his sons are just as brutal and ambitious as he is. He has used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Iraq and against Iran. His deception of the UN inspectors during the 1990s, well laid out in the book Saddam Defiant by Richard Butler, then the Australian head of the inspectorate, shows that he is desperate to have such weapons to boost his regional power. If he were to be allowed to develop them freely, he would plainly be willing to use them.

Hawks often claim that there are links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden´s al-Qaida network, and that Saddam might supply the terrorists with these terrible weapons. There is no evidence for this. The real argument is about example: he might supply weapons, as could any other government if the world were to make it clear, by ignoring Iraq, that such weapons could be developed with impunity. But there is also a broader, more important link to terrorism.

This link concerns the root causes of that terrorism: resentment of the many dictatorial regimes in the Arab world, and of the role America has played in supporting some of them. The right long-term task is to encourage the spread of democracy and broad-based economic growth in the Arab world. The right short-term task is to remove direct sources of grievance.

One of the biggest is the containment system set up in 1991 to control Saddam: a combination of economic sanctions and “no-fly” zones policed from bases in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. This has not only failed to halt Saddam´s weapons programmes; it has also fuelled hatred of the west. Sticking to it is a terrible option. The best way to get rid of it, and the grievances, is to remove the need for containment by forcing Saddam to disarm. Only then can the long-term project really begin.

For sure, this is risky. No one is arguing for war against North Korea, even though its regime is as brutal as Saddam´s, and is also seeking nuclear weapons, because in a war it is virtually certain that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in Seoul, near the “demilitarised zone”, would die in an artillery barrage by the North. In Iraq, too, there are risks. But they are much smaller. Saddam could slaughter hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but it is hard to see why this calculating man would think that worthwhile. The unanimous vote at the UN, with even Syria in favour, makes a wider war extremely unlikely. And there are bigger risks involved in doing nothing: that he rearms further, that resentment at the effect of sanctions and at the Saudi bases grows, that other dictators conclude that unilateralism pays.

If there were only one reason to be willing to fight Saddam, it might not be convincing. But the reasons pile on top of one another: human rights, defending multilateralism, ending a resented containment scheme, deterring the spread of deadly weapons, and, in the longer term, starting to spread democracy in the Middle East. You can oppose the ultimate use of force in this very special case if you are a true pacifist. But do not call on foreign troops to be used to stop genocides in Rwanda, or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or to promote democracy elsewhere if you are not willing to have them used to deal with this genocidal, ethnic-cleansing, power-hungry dictator. Otherwise, you are a hypocrite.