This is not a dossier but an act of desperation

simon jenkins

We still wander in a daze. Democracies rarely stay up all night seeking reasons to go to war. Normally they do the opposite. They talk, negotiate, compromise, take refuge in the United Nations. They do not like fighting, unless driven by an overwhelming logic of events.

Yesterday's government dossier on Iraq reads like a desperate quest for such a logic. Ministers cannot be quaking with fear at the prospect of an imminent assault from President Saddam Hussein. A year ago they claimed that their bombing was "containing" him, stopping him from harming even his own people, let alone his neighbours or British interests. Of course he seeks nasty weapons. Paranoid dictators always do. But nothing in the dossier constitutes evidence of an early threat, let alone a casus belli between Britain and Iraq. What is going on?

I am no pacifist sap. I was convinced when past British Governments told me of threats to the British state. One threat was from Soviet Russia, and came complete with target maps, lists of vulnerable cities and an armoury of all-tooeffective weapons of mass destruction. Yet where were Tony Blair and Clare Short and others in the Labour Party? They wanted unilateral nuclear disarmament and claimed that the "threat" was dreamt up by warmongering Americans. They were wrong.

Unlike many in the Labour Party, I believed that the Falklands war had to be fought against a palpable assault on British sovereignty. I thought the Gulf War just in that the invasion of Kuwait could only be resisted by main force. I felt the same about domestic terrorism. Mr Blair, supported by Ms Short and others, believed in releasing IRA terrorists from prison on the strength of vague promises of disarmament. This seemed naive and reckless appeasement, and so it has proved. People need no lessons from Mr Blair or Jack Straw in being"tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism".

But yesterday's dossier is not serious. Mr Blair told us yet again yesterday what a nasty person Saddam is. We know that. The task of leadership is not to write tabloid front pages but to judge how far a threat to the nation's interest is real and, if so, how the nation should respond proportionately. Neither Mr Blair nor George Bush has yet explained what has suddenly led them to abandon containment of Iraq and to demand Saddam's head on a plate.

Indeed the first surprise for those who thought the West's policy on Iraq has been crass and counterproductive is to find that Mr Blair agrees. Despite what we were told at the time, the 1998 bombing of Baghdad was ineffective. It did not remove weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions did not stop Saddam rebuilding his arsenals. They did eliminate the entire Iraqi business and professional class as possible opposition to Saddam and make him so rich he could buy any weapons he wanted.

Every bomb that landed cemented him in power. Containment was such a failure, says Mr Blair now, that Britain must go to war to rectify it.

The dossier's attempt to present Saddam as an incipient nuclear power is worse than half-hearted. He has no factory to treat enriched uranium even if he found it "somewhere in Africa". Had he such a factory, it could be bombed. His biological weapons are hard to deliver, least of all with his ageing Scuds. They were not used even in the Gulf War. Saddam has had these weapons for '0 years. So have many highly unstable Central Asian states. Nor does the dossier explain why these weapons could not be eliminated "surgically", as their predecessors were by the Israelis in 1981 and allegedly by American missiles ever since.

Saddam displays no expansionist intent. Containment has at least held him within his borders for a decade. He is not known to be arming a terrorist group. There are no urgent pleas for Western help from his neighbours. He has made no ultimatum against them or against the West that would justify a pre-emptive attack. The possession of evil weapons is itself no legal basis for aggressive war. The whole scenario is bizarre.

Saddam is certainly a league leader among dictators. We are not dealing with a jumped-up Taleban or a mad ayatollah. The Iraqi leader's '0-year rule has been tenacious, merciless and brutal even by Middle East standards, long before the West gave him the excuse of economic sanctions as an engine of repression. Yet he was considered an ally of the West and was supplied with Western arms. A strong ruler in Baghdad was seen as useful by Western pragmatists. To the hard men of Washington and London, high-flown phrases about democracy, humanity, disarmament and civilised values were for wimps. They liked the cut of Saddam's jib when it suited them.

Now he is beyond mere damnation. He is the object of a Third Crusade in the holy war on terror. After Kosovo and Afghanistan, the suspicion is hard to avoid that the West's warrior statesmen are seeking new citadels to conquer. Whether or not Saddam is a menace to world peace, menace he must become. Hence yesterday's lurid report. As Randolph Hearst cried of the prelude to a different encounter: "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

Until this month, there seemed little doubt that Mr Bush, with Mr Blair in tow, would have gone directly to armed conflict as soon as troops were in place. Both were abruptly constrained by democracy. A battery of international lawyers declared such aggression illegal and a wide "coalition of the cautious" emerged, not least from congressional leaders and members of Mr Bush's family court. They demanded that any such adventure must first win the support of the United Nations and allies.

Mr Bush was right to go to the UN this month. It was a UN resolution that Saddam has flouted since 1991. America now accepts that the UN should lead the next response to that flouting. Nuclear proliferation was always the unfinished business of the Cold War. The UN had a primary role in curtailing that proliferation. The world has a collective interest in seeing the UN's will obeyed.

Seeking that obedience is already proving messy. Yesterday Britain's Ambassador to the UN claimed that America had dropped "regime change" as a demand, since the UN cannot enforce it and Saddam can hardly accept it. The US has since denied this. Meanwhile, the French on the Security Council are redrafting both the American and British requests, to avoid building in an inevitable path to war. Washington's fear that the UN route would prove a morass of delay is coming true. Yet this venture is too tenuous for any other route to be plausible.

For the moment it might seem that America's hands are tied. Yet on the assumption that weapons inspection proves as unsatisfactory as it did before, then war is back in play. On that assumption, America would be vastly reinforced in its view that Saddam is a prima facie threat. Reinforced too would be the demand that he and his arsenals be neutralised and the UN's will enforced.

There is little doubt that a renewed failure of arms inspection would secure a UN Security Council mandate authorising military enforcement of Iraqi disarmament. Whatever strongarm tactics America and Britain might deploy to win that mandate, mandate it would be. America would have done as it was bidden. Opposing American action to enforce the mandate would mean opposing the enforcement of the will of the UN. That in turn would be an intolerable boost not just to Saddam but to global lawlessness.

At this point supporters of the UN would have little option. However thin the evidence of an Iraqi nuclear arsenal, however minimal the overt threat to peace, "appropriate force" to punish a decade-long and blatant defiance of the UN would be hard to question. The content and security of Third World arsenals is a reasonable concern to Western democracies. The UN might seem humiliated into a forced acquiescence of American aggression against Iraq. That would be better than the UN being humiliated by Saddam.
That route, and that route alone, would justify Britain joining a war against Iraq. The route is long and tortuous. It might take months, even years. But the British Government yesterday failed to make a case for any short cut.