A divided world stands on the brink of a war that could have been avoided
Independent - UK - 18 March 2003:
Less than one month after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001,
Tony Blair permitted himself a rare flight of high rhetoric. "This is a
moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces
are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder
this world around us..."
We might have hoped the pieces would have settled after the military
operation in Afghanistan. Yesterday, however, it became clear that was
not to be. The half-century-old system of international arbitration broke
down as America and Britain made it clear they would, unilaterally,
circumvent the deadlocked diplomats and President Bush gave Saddam
Hussein, 48 hours to leave his country or face the full force of US
The consequences are that multilateral institutions from Nato to the
European Union to the Arab League are riven with discord, long-standing
alliances are in tatters, and one of Britain's most respected and
principled ministers has resigned.
Britain may now be only hours from war, and it is a war that has not been
sanctioned by the international community. It was not the outcome that
this newspaper sought. Far from it. We hoped for the peaceful disarmament
of Iraq, accomplished through diplomacy.
We continue to believe the UN process should have been allowed to run its
course. The weapons inspectors, who answer to the international community
through the Security Council, were still doing their job, unobstructed,
only hours before Mr Bush spoke to the American people last night. To
date, they had found no evidence that Iraq was developing a nuclear
capability. In respect of chemical, biological and other weapons, they
reported progress in disarmament not enough, but progress none the
The war that now seems inevitable constitutes a failure of potentially
catastrophic proportions, whose malign effects will fall first of all on
the long-suffering people of Iraq. If Saddam Hussein refuses the US
ultimatum to leave, as seems likely, we trust that the military
commanders and their political masters will do their utmost to minimise
the number of civilian casualties. The sooner it is over, the sooner
reconstruction can begin.
That said, this is a war that should not be happening. Saddam Hussein
could and should have authorised the disclosure of far more information
than he did. While co-operating with the letter of the latest UN
resolution, 1441, he fell short of acting within its spirit. That now
looks certain to cost him his country, and perhaps his life.
The failure of diplomacy is a tragedy, and the blame is widely shared.
President Bush and his administration have much to answer for. Their
rhetoric has seemed bullying, harsh and intemperate. They appeared
obsessed with Saddam, and unready to accept compromise in their quest to
impose their vision of a new world order. Washington has failed to
nurture its alliances and to heed the misgivings of old friends; it
appears to subscribe to a doctrine that might is always right.
After the United States must come France. The duo of President Chirac and
Dominique de Villepin assumed leadership of the European anti-war party
and argued their case with impeccable logic. Borne aloft on the wave of
Europe's popular aversion to war, however, they overplayed their hand. M.
Chirac's public threat to veto the so-called second UN resolution
"whatever the circumstances" left France with no leeway. As the Foreign
Secretary noted in the Commons yesterday, it undercut the credibility of
the threat that Britain, for one, had been relying upon to push Iraq into
compliance without war. And it handed Mr Blair a propaganda advantage a
chance for some old-fashioned French-bashing which he rushed to
The failed UN resolution will go down in history as the fault of the
French. In fact, with or without a French veto, Britain, the US and Spain
may have been unable to muster the majority they needed in the UN
Security Council. In believing they could, the British Government was
sorely deluded or poorly advised; the politicians were let down by their
Tony Blair now faces the worst of all political worlds. Not only must he
almost certainly order British troops into battle, he is left isolated
abroad and wounded at home. He may be fortunate to escape with just one
Cabinet resignation, and Robin Cook set an example of honour and dignity
that leaves Cabinet responsibility and for the time being Mr Blair's
authority intact. The reasons he gave for his departure, however the
vain pursuit of a second resolution and the lack of popular or
international mandate for force will reverberate strongly among
Britain's voters, validating an aversion to war that was starting to wane
and threatening the first real internal opposition to Mr Blair.
It is a strange paradox that while Mr Blair's arguments have failed to
convince, his patent sincerity has impressed, banishing his reputation as
a fickle politician without convictions. His address and answers after
Sunday's Azores summit were worthy of a first-class statesman, leaving Mr
Bush looking like an ill-informed amateur. Key elements of his foreign
policy, however, are in shreds. Any ambition he might have had to lead
Europe in the future is at an end. Britain's reputation and influence in
the Arab world cannot but be diminished. Britain risks being seen once
again as Washington's junior partner and no more.
The next 24 hours will show how profoundly the kaleidoscope to which Mr
Blair referred 18 months ago has been shaken; how many of the myriad
shards are in flux and how long they may take to settle. We fear that it
could be a very long time.