When the newspaper becomes the story

‘The Independent’ was almost alone in the media in opposing the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tony Blair was later to call the newspaper a ‘feral beast’


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The Independent Online

25 September 2002

It is, as the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons yesterday, all a matter of “means, mentality and motive” when it comes to Saddam Hussein.

The publication of the long-awaited dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is a detailed account of Saddam’s past and current capacity in this field. True, much of the material is already in the public domain, and we are asked to take much on the word of the intelligence community. Their assessments have not always proved reliable in the past, lamentably so in the case of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qa’ida network. But there is no reason to doubt the consensus view, confirmed by this dossier, that Saddam probably does possess some of the means to produce chemical, biological and, possibly, nuclear weapons.

So, in Mr Duncan Smith’s formulation, Saddam does have the means to produce some of these weapons; but we knew that. What must be doubted is whether he currently has the mentality and motive to use them against the West or, indeed, against the West’s allies and friends in the region. Without evidence to suggest that he does, the case for unilateral military action against Iraq collapses. And it is on these points that both the dossier and Tony Blair’s statements in the House of Commons were weakest.

There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a monstrous, murdering dictator. His history of cruel internal repression and merciless external aggression has cost more than a million lives, and it is meticulously detailed in the dossier. He has invaded his neighbours, deployed nerve gas and tortured opponents. The individual testimonies of victims of Saddam’s regime in the dossier are powerful and moving.

As Mr Blair often says, the people of Iraq, of the Middle East and, indeed, of the whole world would be much better off without him. Again, we knew that, and, of course, it’s true. The world would be better off without all its loathsome despots, from Kim Jong Il to Robert Mugabe. However, few talk about invading North Korea or Zimbabwe, even though Mr Kim may have nuclear weapons and both represent, in their very different ways, potent threats to the stability of their regions. Nor do we hear very much from President Bush or Mr Blair about “liberating” the billion oppressed citizens of China and occupied Tibet.

The usual official response to this argument is that Saddam represents a uniquely terrible threat to Western interests and the security and peace of the Middle East. Yet there is no concrete evidence for this in the dossier, or anywhere else. Despite his taste for attacking his enemies, Saddam has been effectively contained since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. A mixture of diplomatic pressure, sanctions, no-fly zones and Western forces in neighbouring countries has seen to that. As to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam knows that if he were ever to use them, then the response of the West, whose nuclear arsenals far outstrip anything Saddam could dream of, would be unleashed on him.

Saddam’s mentality may be deeply unpleasant, and his motivation aggressive, but unless we take the view that he is completely irrational or just plain mad, there is no reason why he should not continue to be “kept in his box” by a policy of deterrence.

None of which argues against upholding the will of the United Nations. The UN’s weapons inspectors should return to Iraq and go about their business without obstruction. Saddam has now offered to allow them in without condition, and although we should be sceptical about his sincerity, this offer must be taken up. If nothing else, it might provide a fresher assessment of Iraqi capabilities than the one in the dossier. For the most worrying aspect of the Government’s approach is that the UN does not always seem to be central to it. Mr Blair yesterday signally failed to rule out unilateral action by the US backed by Britain to achieve regime change, and that omission is very worrying.

Let us be clear: Saddam does represent a risk to peace, but he is not such a substantial danger as to justify unilateral military intervention. If we were to march into Baghdad, say, what then? Where is his replacement to be found? Are we to have a repeat of the situation in Afghanistan, where the US just bombs the old regime out of existence and then ships out? What effect would such a vacuum have on the stability of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia? What would a $60 barrel of oil do to the world economy? A pre-emptive strike by the West may even place Saddam in a position where he feels he has nothing to lose, and it may actually provoke him to attack Israel. In other words, awful as Saddam is, a war to remove him could easily make matters far worse.

The real threat to Western security, as 11 September demonstrated, comes from individual acts of terror. A war on Iraq would create hundreds of thousands more volunteers for al-Qa’ida and similar groups. If we really want to make the world a safer place, we have to make the Middle East a safer place. That means a lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. War on Iraq would only render that prospect still more distant.

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