Once again, it's the world's most serious confrontation

How long will Europeans, let alone Arabs, go on accepting America's astonishing theatricals?
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RICHARD BUTLER, head of the United Nation's arms inspection teams in Baghdad, is calling it "the most serious confrontation" between Iraq and the UN Security Council. US defence secretary William Cohen, travelling to see "America's allies" in the Gulf, informs us that "no options" are ruled out. Iraqi parliamentary president Saadoun Hammadi predicts the outbreak of "the last battle" before the lifting of sanctions. Tony Blair stands four-square behind Bill Clinton in demanding total Iraqi compliance with UN inspectors. British and American fighter-bombers are on standby.

Isn't this all a bit familiar? Have we not been down this path before? And are we going to accept this dismal, dangerous scenario all over again at face value? Are we going to keep a straight face when our plucky foreign secretary reveals the existence of yet another bestial new nerve gas in Saddam's possession? There's a whole range of possibilities; after all, it's only a few months since Middle East "experts" told us that Saddam was trying to bring nerve gas into Britain in duty-free perfume bottles.

Butler's claim that this is the "most serious confrontation" is, of course, rubbish: the most serious challenge to the Security Council came when Saddam refused to end his occupation of Kuwait in 1990. And by my count, this is the eighth post-war "confrontation" with Iraq. It was only last February that Tony Blair told us that Saddam had enough weapons "to wipe out the whole world". And now, presumably, he has even more weapons.

The truth is that Saddam Hussein - wicked, vicious, murderous dictator that he is (and this is a mantra which still has to be recited by anyone daring to suggest that the West's policies towards Iraq are folly) - has realised that US credibility in the Middle East is at an all-time low and that no Arab nation will stomach another bombardment of Baghdad. Already the Saudis have told Cohen that he can't strike Iraq from their kingdom. And is it any surprise? A mere glance at my local Beirut newspapers show the reason for the Arab refusal to help Washington. For on every front page this week, alongside the photographs of UN inspectors in Baghdad, are pictures of Israeli bulldozers ripping into the earth of occupied Palestinian land to build ever-greater extensions to Jewish settlements. All, of course, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and the Oslo agreement - but we've not heard about any "serious confrontation" here.

And why should we? Was it not Israel which supposedly gave so much intelligence information to the UN arms inspectors in Iraq? Was it not UN inspector Scott Ritter - repeatedly accused by Saddam of consorting with Iraq's Israeli enemies - who revealed last month that he had indeed visited Israel "many times" for intelligence work?

Needless to say, this is not something we are being reminded of just now - not least because Iraq is claiming that other inspectors have also been in league with the Israelis. In his latest bellicose statements about Iraq, Butler made no mention of Ritter's trips to Israel (though he most surely knew of them) and Ritter himself got away with a half-hour interview on BBC World Service television earlier this month without once being asked about his most secretive and politically damaging visits to Tel Aviv. Gearing up for a new crisis, there are some things that just have to be forgotten.

As the American commentator Norman Solomon put it so well in a recent cynical column, "when the mass media in some foreign countries serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of their government, the result is ludicrous propaganda. When the mass media in our country serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of the US government, the result is responsible journalism." As George Orwell said, "circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip".

Thus the United States gets away with a Middle East policy that sometimes resembles a western movie. Back in 1986, President Reagan - no doubt remembering one of his own B-movies - announced that Colonel Gaddafi (then America's Public Enemy Number One) "can run but he can't hide". Now we have information- wanted posters of Ossama Bin Laden (the latest Public Enemy Number One) - who may or may not be as ferocious as the Beast of Baghdad - and a Dodge City-style reward of $5m for the dissident Saudi whom America accuses of more violence than Attila the Hun.

As a matter of fact, $5m is a rather paltry sum in the Middle East. This year alone, for example, Israel is spending $235m on the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian land, a figure which is set to rise to almost $400m next year. But there's no debate about this in the United States. Indeed, the very word "settlers" has a cosy ring about it, resonant of the history of the Old West (the Israelis playing the role of the white settlers, the Palestinians being the Apache Indians).

And so it goes on. UN sanctions against Iraq - which leave Saddam untouched but are approaching genocidal proportions for the civil population - will be maintained. We may bomb Iraq again. Ossama Bin Laden is the world's new Super Criminal (you can forget General Mladic and his anti-Muslim mass murderers), and Bin Laden's demand for the withdrawal of US troops from the Gulf will go unmentioned - because this is not something which Washington wishes to debate. And the Jewish settlements on the West Bank will continue to be expanded, destroying any hope of a Palestinian state.

Sanity would dictate that all UN Security Council resolutions should be adhered to. The Arab world would have no reason to ignore Cohen's appeals over Iraqi non-compliance if Israel abided by the wishes of the Security Council. Support for a real democracy in Iraq - not for the bunch of secret agents now receiving even more millions of dollars in aid - might ensure that Saddam would, indeed, be overthrown, along with his anthrax spores. And if the United States did pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia - why they are still there remains something of a mystery - then the likes of Bin Laden and his friends would lose their support.

So how long will Europeans, let alone Arabs, go on accepting America's theatricals in the Middle East? Even the British must weary of the astonishing and repetitive crises in the region. Perhaps it's too much to hope that we will ignore the rhetoric this time round. But at least we could refuse to believe it.