Nothing has felt quite right about the attacks on Iraq

Why were Saddam's neighbours not urging us on, providing help and rejoicing in our success?
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The Independent Culture
WAS THERE large-scale rejoicing yesterday after the Prime Minister's announcement that the aims of military action against Iraq had been achieved, and within four days, and with no allied casualties? Of course not. The reaction has been one of mild relief, no jubilation, no satisfaction taken from a job well done. The reason is that nothing that has happened since bombing began on Wednesday night has felt quite right.

To begin with, it didn't feel quite right that President Clinton should launch the attack just before the House of Representatives was due to debate his impeachment. In a democracy, the leader needs moral authority to wage war and to risk the lives of members of the armed forces. Indeed the President of the United States is also America's Commander-in-Chief. Yet immediately after Mr Clinton's statement, the majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, said: "I cannot support this military action in the Gulf at this time." This turning of the back, by the senior member of the Republican Party, when American troops were risking their lives, was astonishing. By then it was too late for Tony Blair to withdraw, but was he not bewildered when he saw the patriotic Republican Party disown the Commander-in-Chief?

Nor was the report by the United Nations' inspectors in Iraq, whose negative findings on the government's level of compliance was the immediate cause of Anglo-American retaliation, as widely accepted as one would expect. President Clinton gave their account an effective spin - instead of the inspectors disarming Saddam, Saddam had disarmed the inspectors - but the UN secretary general, Koffi Annan, described Iraqi compliance as a "mixed picture" that falls short of "full co-operation". In fact the so-called Unscom report does not predict an emergency. It merely refers to routine violations.

Curious, too, was the reaction of the supposed beneficiaries of the bombing of Iraq, the neighbouring countries of the Middle East. The President and the Prime Minister said that Saddam must not be allowed to threaten his neighbours with nuclear weapons, poison gas or biological weapons. Indeed not. But why, then, were the neighbours not urging us on, providing all the help they could and rejoicing in our success? Mr Blair implies that they secretly harbour these emotions but dare not express them. We are to think of them as profoundly but silently thankful.

This is possible. On the other hand, the silence may be because the overriding feeling of Iraq's neighbours is repugnance at the sight of nations from what is seen as the Christian, colonialist West assaulting a Muslim, Arab country, whatever its faults. In which case, one wonders what we are doing there.

We used to be told that intervention was necessary to protect our oil supplies. Now that there is a glut - so that even last week the oil price continued to fall - this is no longer put forward as a reason.

Instead, we are asked to consider a more general point. While other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, with Saddam there is one big difference - he has used them, not once but repeatedly. Left unchecked, Saddam will use these terrible weapons again. This is a proposition with seeming power. It implies that the international community cannot and should not tolerate murderous dictators holding such weapons. Except that three members of the five permanent members of the Security Council - France, Russia and China - do not agree that Saddam is such a worrying case. Nor do we receive any support worth having from our European partners. Germany's backing is tepid to the point of meaninglessness. The rest are silent. The moral case receives no support from other countries like ourselves.

This is very peculiar. One explanation would be that our European neighbours do not believe that Saddam's Iraq is such a terrible threat. They note that of Saddam's 950 short- and medium-range missiles that he had acquired before 1991, all have been found and destroyed. Thus he lacks conventional means of projecting chemical or biological material beyond his borders.

An alternative interpretation is that France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the rest simply do not believe in the efficacy of aerial assault. The snatches of film of bombs hitting their targets which the Ministry of Defence shows every day are not convincing. We have no idea whether the target has been correctly identified or whether it contains what it is said to contain. Did we destroy any Republican Guards, or "special" Republican Guards or the "drones of death" as the Secretary of State, George Robertson, calls the unmanned aircraft which Saddam is supposed to be constructing?

Likewise we are asked to believe that Saddam can only maintain his power by using a "command and control" system and this we have severely damaged. But in the past, dictators have generally got along without such sophisticated communications networks.

It may also be the case that our neighbours' withholding of support is explained by their embarrassment. For they see American policy as cruel and counter-productive. Cruel because some Iraqi civilians have undoubtedly been killed or injured during the past few days, and cruel because the policy of economic sanctions has reduced Iraq to a state of malnutrition and disease.

As Robert Fisk reported on Friday, Dennis Halliday, who ran the UN oil- for-food programme in Baghdad, resigned when he realised that thousands of Iraqi children were dying every month because of sanctions. He commented: "We are in the process of destroying an entire society ... it is illegal and immoral."

And counter-productive, because dictators often generate loyalty by standing up to and fighting a wicked external enemy, the Great Satan in some form or other. On this reading Saddam will have been delighted by Anglo-American resolve to maintain sanctions and patrol the Gulf. Not so much "Oh, what a lovely war!" but "Oh, what a lovely enemy!".

It has been a strange few days for this country. We really need to understand why we received scarcely any backing from countries with whom we have much in common, and whose leaders and citizens are in constant touch with us. What do they perceive which we do not? What have we understood which they have failed to comprehend? What is the meaning of this episode, where nothing rings true?