Iraq’s War of Words with worse to come


Universe Column January 2003

By David Alton

Thucydides said that of all the manifestations of power, restraint is the most impressive.  When Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon those words were etched on an inscription on his desk. As the US and Britain decide whether to go to war against Iraq he is in a pivotal and influential position. Many will be hoping that Thucydides dictum is engraved on his heart.

The war of words unleashed against Iraq is the surest sign yet that as soon as the allies feel confident that Afghanistan has been subdued the way will be open to commence hostilities against Iraq.

Each day the drumbeat of war has been intensifying.  America has declared that if necessary she will “go it alone” adding that Britain’s support is taken as read and to be included in this remark.

The Prime Minister has paved the way for British military involvement by citing Iraq’s non-compliance with United Nations arms resolutions, and the possible presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as grounds for attacking Saddam’s regime. He said that MPs would have the opportunity for a full parliamentary debate and vote.

The Pentagon is said to favour a combination of Special Forces raids, air power and popular uprisings (led by the London-based Iraqi National Congress). The CIA have called for a coup d’etat which would involve assassination while the State Department has called for “smart sanctions” and the readmission of weapons inspectors.  Most people rule out a ground invasion, which would need an army of some 300,000 men, but if the first tactics fail such engagement might become inevitable.

US military engagement would be the toughest since World War Two. Iraq is not Afghanistan, nor is it simply going to lay down and die.  Nor is it absolutely clear that the usual international criteria of international law – that is the right to self-defence and proportionality of response – can be invoked. And if Iraq’s non-compliance with UN resolutions are to be called in aid by Mr. Blair where will this leave us if we embark on a military expedition without the authority of the United Nations?

The hope must still surely be that the drumbeat and the pressure will provoke internal change in Iraq. Saddam brought sanctions and suffering on his people and most Iraqis would gladly see change. The allies should make it clear now that a change in leadership would immediately result in the removal of sanctions, and that, in any event, indiscriminate sanctions will be reviewed.

At present many babies are severely malnourished and of every 1000 babies born, 108 will die before their first birthday. In its blockaded economy, teachers, and civil servants and other professionals earn about 50 pence a week.  The country’s education and welfare systems have broken down.

The health system is crippled – and doctors report a fourfold increase in leukaemia caused by depleted uranium present since the Gulf War. Sanctions have held up the supply of chemotherapy drugs – although the allies say that drugs have been misused by Saddam.  They claim that lorries given by aid agencies, for instance, have been turned into rocket launchers.

America is undoubtedly very powerful.  It must not simply use its power to destroy, but to create order and stability. The failure to be even handed in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is evidence of a failure to use power effectively.

After he unleashed the Black and Tans on the people of Ireland, in order to quell the Feinians, David Lloyd George notoriously claimed  “we have murder by the throat.”   Life is never as simple as that.  The subsequent conflict in Ireland and the continuing conflict in the Middle East both underline the need to engage in painstaking conflict resolution and in the building of civil society.

Mr. Blair says that Britain is in a unique position to influence the US. I suspect this is over-exaggerated.  When asked if he was going to consult European allies an American official’s response was that “we don’t consult, we inform.”   Mr. Blair will travel to Washington next month. He should remind the Administration of the virtue of consultation, of  building international consensus and of the virtue of patience. He should also take with him those words of Thucydides that “restraint impresses men.”