There will be a severe political price to pay if the human and financial costs of this conflict mount up
[The Independent - 29 March 2003]:
A cakewalk was originally an African-American dance competition featuring a laid-back walking style, with a cake as the prize. Later it came to mean any easy task. Last week it was prominent in the lexicon of this war. This week it has been replaced by a less optimistic, if no less flippant, phrase, "blue-collar warfare", meaning the long, hard and dangerous slog of street-by-street fighting.
The implications of a long war are serious. The case for military action was sold with the implication that it would be short and relatively bloodless. Even on that basis, George Bush and his award-winning salesman Tony Blair could not persuade world opinion that it was necessary. Now that they appear to accept that the fighting will last months rather than weeks, with all the likely consequences in blood and suffering, support for the war, although it may have increased briefly once British troops were engaged, could recede.
It is possible, of course, that there is an element of spin – and media overreaction – in changing perceptions of the war. Before it started, it suited Mr Blair in particular to do nothing to discourage speculation that Saddam Hussein's regime would collapse on day one and, if it did not, that US forces would be in Baghdad on day three.
Today, on the other hand, it suits Mr Blair and Mr Bush to suggest that the war might be longer or tougher than they really think, so that people are relieved if it turns out shorter and easier than expected. Even bearing that in mind, however, the one thing that has emerged through the sandstorm of war during the first nine days is that US troops are going to have to fight their way into the Iraqi capital after all. That means a higher rate of casualties than has been sustained so far, both among Allied troops and Iraqi civilians (the number of casualties among Iraqi combatants is harder to judge).
It is fair to say that, measured against the charts of most past wars, the death toll so far has been low. And it should be acknowledged that the US and its allies have learnt a great deal from recent military campaigns. Unlike in Serbia, a serious attempt has been made to preserve the infrastructure of Iraq. But if the body count comes closer to that expected in conventional urban warfare, the balance of argument will tip.
This newspaper opposed the decision to go to war, not from pacifism but because the potential benefits of removing a dictator and neutralising a theoretical risk of his arming terrorists were outweighed by the horrendous costs of war. We were prepared to accept that, had Saddam been assassinated in the first, opportunistic bombing raid and his subordinates come out with their hands up, the costs and benefits would have been more balanced. Now, however, those costs seem heavier than ever.
This is not simply a matter of the immediate human cost in death, injury, grief and fear. That will be multiplied by an unknown factor as it is translated into anti-American sentiment throughout other Arab and Muslim countries. In Iraq, meanwhile, it is becoming clearer that the feelings of the people towards their self-appointed liberators are more ambivalent than was allowed for in the world -view of the American right. That means the post-war situation in Iraq will be less tractable, and more expensive, than expected.
The financial cost of war is growing daily. Mr Bush's request to Congress for $75bn – seven times the GDP of Iraq – assumed that the conflict would last 30 days. It may last longer, in which case the hole in budget arithmetic in the US and the UK will grow wider. As he rewrites next month's Budget speech, Gordon Brown must be alarmed by the war's effects on a service-based economy on the brink of recession.
Nor is there any prospect that the costs of this war will be shared with the "plenty" of allies of which the President boasted unconvincingly. In 1991, nine-tenths of the costs of the Gulf War were borne by countries other than the US. This time, the coalition of the willing is not a coalition of the willing-to-pay.
Nor can Mr Blair or Mr Bush avoid paying a personal price if their own electorates start to shift back towards scepticism about the war. It is often said that democracies are slow to go to war, but determined to see it through once the fighting starts. This time, the tenor of public opinion, even in America, seems less certain.
British voters may have decided, for example, to give Mr Blair the benefit of the doubt for the moment. But if it emerges that his case for war was built on falsehoods, they may be unforgiving. If we find no chemical or biological weapons; if the contracts to rebuild Iraq are handed over the American corporations; and if the US decides that, after all, it needs some Iraqi oil revenue to defray the costs of war; then Mr Blair's misplaced loyalty to Mr Bush will be punished without mercy.
The idea that Mr Blair will emerge strengthened from this war was never persuasive. The longer the war goes on, and the higher the casualty tally, the weaker Mr Blair will be afterwards. The question that must worry the Prime Minister over the next few weeks is: at what point does public resentment against this unnecessary war reach a critical mass?
Against the human costs of war, the political consequences for Mr Bush's re-election next year or Mr Blair's the year after may seem trivial. The Prime Minister was right to say that what matters now is not his position but that of British and American servicemen and women who are "really putting everything at risk".
But it is also right that democratic leaders who make the wrong choices and mislead people to justify them should be held to account.