Let me quote an expert appraisal of the state of Saddam Hussein's armed forces: they are "in a poor state of training, with equipment that lacks maintenance, and possess a capability that certainly does not offer them the option of crossing their own border to launch a serious invasion of any of Iraq's neighbours". This is not the opinion of some unreconstructed Labour MP but the view of Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces in the Gulf in 1991, who expressed doubts on Friday about the efficacy of air strikes.
Even if we accept the argument, advanced by the Prime Minister, that Saddam Hussein has concealed chemical and biological weapons, how will missile attacks get rid of these? Tony Blair conceded that "large quantities of chemical weapons agents and provisions remain unaccounted for" - an admission that he does not know where they are stored. This raises the spectre of civilian casualties, when supposed weapons sites turn out to be innocuous car factories, and of raids that release toxic chemicals or even anthrax into the atmosphere.
"Before we all become too gung-ho, let us all remind ourselves that this is not going to be a rerun of February 1993," Sir Peter warned on Friday. The most probable outcome of Anglo-American air strikes would be to strengthen Saddam Hussein's prestige in the Middle East, where President Clinton's authority has been severely undermined by his failure to act on Israel's defiance of UN resolutions. It is worth pointing out that that country, unlike Iraq, is currently occupying land belonging to its neighbours: the Golan Heights, which it snatched from Syria and shows no sign of returning.
So who is in favour of another war against Iraq? Not China, or France, or Russia, whose President Yeltsin quite rightly predicted the danger, bearing in mind the hawkish regime now running Israel, of escalation beyond Iraq's borders. It is easy to dismiss Boris Yeltsin as unstable but a hint from the Israeli defence minister, General Yitzhak Mordechai, that his government has tactical nuclear weapons and would be prepared to use them, was reported in British newspapers on Friday. (What is Israel doing with nuclear weapons, by the way? When is the UN going to do something about what appears to be an unauthorised example of nuclear proliferation?)
That leaves a coalition consisting of the US, Britain, and two of the nastiest regimes in the Middle East, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Both countries enforce a vile form of sexual apartheid on women, and the latter's record on human rights, especially in the matter of the death penalty, is a scandal. What jolly company we find ourselves in - but it does at least give President Clinton, and Robin Cook, something to pontificate about at a moment when both men are the butt of salacious jokes about their sexual activities.
WHAT neither man seems to realise - nor, apparently, does Mr Blair - is the irony inherent in the diversionary tactic they have chosen. When Mr Clinton and Mr Blair met the press at the White House on Thursday, they batted away questions which were in effect about where the President may or may not have put his penis, preferring to talk instead about "weapons of mass destruction" and the importance of standing up to Saddam Hussein.
"We have stood together ... in the face of tyranny," Mr Blair announced. "Today, in the face of the threat from Saddam Hussein, we must stand together once more." Listening to this macho bluster from people who should know better, it is impossible not to ponder the significance of weapons - guns, missiles - as phallic substitutes. Air attacks on Iraq are so unlikely to solve the problem of concealed weapons stocks, as Sir Peter de la Billiere has pointed out, that the Anglo-American enthusiasm for them requires another explanation.
Sir Peter asks whether their purpose is really to punish Saddam Hussein. Earlier in the week, Mr Blair remarked that Saddam Hussein is a nasty dictator, sitting on a lot of nasty stuff. "We have got to tell people about the evils of Saddam" - a blow for those of us who were planning to ask the Iraqi leader round for supper, under the mistaken impression that he's a cool guy, but hardly a justification for war.
Coming at the question from a rather different angle, I've always thought that the ungovernability of the phallus is a potent source of male anxiety - and isn't it interesting that two of the politicians currently advocating missile strikes on Iraq, Mr Clinton and Mr Cook, have both been accused of exercising imperfect control over their own sexual organs? As columnists say on occasions like this, I merely ask.
WHAT offends me far more than Mr Clinton's supposed philandering, while we're on the subject, is his record on the death penalty. On Tuesday an execution in Texas drew a huge amount of attention because the condemned person, Karla Faye Tucker, happened to be a woman. There was the usual gruesome process of last-minute appeals, during which Mr Clinton failed to intervene, followed by Ms Tucker's death by lethal injection.
I'm not upset, as some commentators have been, by her gender. A judicial system which imposes different penalties on men and women who have committed similar crimes has no place in the 20th century. Nor, however, does this medieval form of punishment. As well as denying the possibility of repentance and rehabilitation, it places the society which carries it out on the same moral level as the criminal.
Some years ago, at a crucial point in an election campaign, Mr Clinton failed to exercise clemency on behalf of a brain-damaged murderer because he feared his political career would be damaged. Tony Blair should think twice about forming an alliance against Iraq with countries whose leaders display such zeal in killing their own subjects.Reuse content