BATTLE LOST FOR HEARTS AND MINDS
New Zealand Herald - February 20, 2003
President Bush is already losing the most important war he must fight,
the war for world opinion. Demonstrations in most Western countries at
the weekend were of a scale that cannot be ignored. Without international
approval, Mr Bush can invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein if he dares,
but it would be an act of cold-blooded aggression that would severely
damage the moral authority of the United States.
Fortunately the US and Britain appear to have realised that, which is
probably why they are returning to the United Nations Security Council
seeking another vote of support for action. Previously the US had
maintained that November's resolution 1441 gave all the authority needed
for the use of force in the event of Iraq's defiance. Much depended on
the report of the UN weapons inspectors, presented to the Security
Council at the weekend. It was not conclusive.
It acknowledged improved co-operation and the chief inspector Hans Blix
said they had come across no sign of forbidden weapons except for a few
empty chemical munition which should have been declared and destroyed.
However, he also pointed out that Iraq has still not accounted for the
chemical and biological weapons material it was once known to possess.
"If they exist they should be presented for destruction," said Mr Blix.
"If they do not exist, credible evidence to that effect should be
presented." Iraq, for its part, continues to ask the Security Council:
"How do we give up what we do not have?" The US is unmoved and impatient.
France and Germany believe the inspections are making progress and need
to be beefed up and given more time.
The disagreement has caused tensions within Nato, where France, Germany
and Belgium were reluctant to prepare military protection for Turkey in
the event of an Iraqi counter-attack, and within the European Union.
Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands favour a
Security Council resolution that threatens force, while France, Germany,
Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Greece, Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg oppose
immediate military action. The EU has compromised by agreeing to force
"as a last resort", which may be the Security Council's conclusion too.
Meanwhile the US is letting slip plans for a long postwar military
occupation of Iraq, which only adds to the impression that the Bush
Administration has no idea of the mess it would cause. The Middle East is
not the US backyard. If Arab regimes are prepared to offend their
populations by turning a blind eye to the overthrow of Saddam, they will
not comfortably contemplate at least two years of American rule in
Iraq straddles the fault line of the great division of Islam. Sunnis hold
power through the secular rule of Saddam but a greater proportion of the
population are Shi-ite as in neighbouring Iran. Then there are the Kurds,
with their own national aspirations, and several other ethnic interests.
Truly Mr Bush is picking a fight with unpredictable consequences and he
seems to lack an exit strategy. Already he needs one.
If he cannot win the battle for world opinion he needs to fashion a
face-saving exit, not just for himself but to see that Saddam does not
emerge from this crisis with enhanced status in Arab eyes. Mr Bush could
salvage his position, and keep the pressure on Saddam, by getting
Security Council support for much stronger weapons inspections, perhaps
with an international force alongside. If Saddam accepted that, it would
be thanks to the Mr Bush's steely resolve. With the democratic tide
running against him, it may be the best way out.