Leading Article: The Prime Minister has misjudged the mood of the nation

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FOR ALL the Prime Minister's confident nationalism, he has not emerged strengthened from his Iraqi venture. Ministers boasting at the start of the bombing of how loyal they were to United Nations resolutions and the "special relationship" with the US have now changed tack to promote a "diplomatic initiative" to contain Saddam Hussein.

The Government seems to have misjudged the national mood and, for the first time, Mr Blair himself has stumbled badly in his handling of public opinion. He was met by no jingoistic rhetoric in Parliament, and little groundswell of feeling among the electorate; even what bombast there was in the tabloid press seemed strained and overblown. At times last week, the Prime Minister seemed to be using British service personnel as human shields for deflecting criticism; thus he damaged the caring image he has skilfully fostered in domestic affairs.

Ministers can now claim that they have put back by a year or two Saddam's capability to build weapons of mass destruction. They can argue that, the Iraqi leader having been humiliated, it will be easier to contain him by diplomatic means. Their case appears a little threadbare. They seem to be engaged in cobbling together a desperate response to domestic and international criticism of their actions, shocked at the extent of opposition they have encountered both at home and abroad.

They have a lot to reconsider. Britain's relations with her European neighbours have been harmed; they have been given the impression that this country will follow US actions without a second thought. Arab nations already struggling to contain internal dissent have been further destabilised. Even the fragile peace process in Israel has been thrown further into doubt. The attempts of the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, to build a new diplomatic "consensus" in the Middle East are a tacit admission of this.

Mr Blair's latest action, to send a British aircraft-carrier steaming towards the Gulf, is no way to begin this process.

What a new "consensus" in fact demands is that further actions are not only legal and proportionate, but are seen to be so. The UN Security Council should be consulted over further military action, if only to avoid our further isolation. Sanctions will need to be reconsidered, as they seem to have done nothing to weaken the Ba'ath regime in Iraq, and have gained it more sympathy than anything else.

In the long term, the Western powers should promote democracy in Iraq and throughout the region, instead of hoping for a more pliant strongman to emerge from within the Iraqi military. The real way to contain Saddam is to maintain support in the West for action against him, and to persuade those Arabs who may despair of our motives, and see Saddam as our victim, that we are acting fairly.