Leading Article: Futile, possibly, but how else do we deal with this dictator?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT NEXT? That is the overriding question, once the cruise missiles, the smart bombs and the rest of the West's deadly military hardware cease to rain out of the skies over Iraq. The attacks launched by Britain and America will probably go down as the futile end of a futile policy, dictated by the depressing logic of all that has gone before. Almost certainly, they will not eradicate Saddam Hussein's ability to make his weapons of mass destruction. They will contribute nothing to stability in the region. And then there are the suspicions that Mr Clinton cynically unleashed his armies to distract attention from the expected House vote to make him only the second President in history sent to face an impeachment trial in the Senate.

These may well serve only to increase Saddam's popularity among his own people and in the radical Arab world. The true goal of Western policy (once again publicly disavowed, as we visit more misery on the wretched Iraqi people) is the removal of Saddam from power. But the air attacks may only make that prospect more remote.

And yet, at this stage, Washington and London had no alternative. To link the bombing with impending impeachment is to carry conspiracy theorising too far. Even in normal circumstances, events would surely have followed the same course. Not to have used force, after the threats that went before, would have made a mockery of American credibility. If anything, the allies should have gone ahead with the attack that was called off at the last moment on 14 November. The only surprise - and it is a small one - about this showdown is how soon it occurred. To have gone through the usual cycle of warnings would merely have allowed Saddam more time to prevaricate and shift incriminating material out of harm's way. In short, while this is Clinton's war, it is not Monica's war.

But, assuming the onslaught is the "strong and sustained" affair we are promised, it will perforce change how we deal with Saddam. Quite clearly, the era of UN inspections will be over, and probably not before time. For one thing, if the reasons given for this week's attack are to be believed, they have not achieved their aim. Moreover, Saddam will no longer be able to provoke a crisis whenever he likes by denying access to one of his presidential palaces. Finally, the inspectors unwittingly bestowed on Saddam an importance he does not deserve. In Mr Clinton's unconvincing address on Wednesday evening, nothing rang more hollowly than his description of Iraq as a regional superpower and a threat to world peace. The regional superpowers around those parts are Israel (richly endowed with nuclear and chemical weapons) and Iran and Turkey, countries overwhelmingly more populous than Iraq; in terms of military strength Saddam is a shadow of the man who was routed in 1991.

Yes, Iraq has used weapons of mass destruction before. But its leader knows today that the release of a single spore of anthrax would bring shattering, and unanimously approved, retaliation from the West. Which is, of course, why he dared not use them in 1991.

So once this attack is over - with, we can only pray, the smallest possible loss of civilian lives - we have a chance to build a new Iraq policy, whose means at last fit their declared end. The sanctions that have helped prevent Saddam rebuilding his conventional forces - but which do not stop him buying food and medical supplies for his people - may have to continue. But the explicit aim of the West must henceforth be his removal from power.

The means to this end, including the indictment of Saddam as a war criminal and the encouragement of opposition both inside and outside Iraq, will require diplomacy and patience. However, they offer more hope of long- term success than the heavy crump of cruise missiles exploding around Baghdad.