America will, if there is a deal with Iraq, doubtless protest that this is only the result of its firmness. That is a deeply dubious proposition; in reality, Kofi Annan and his skillful diplomacy will have saved the day. If force is used, the failure will be all the worse: the result will not be the end of Saddam, nor of his weapons, nor of any of the basic problems that make this the most likely venue for a major conflict.
Can we really persist with this style of confrontation? Is it worth it, to put the world on the brink of a catastrophe in order to enforce UN resolutions when scant attention is paid to so many others? Have we no other way of achieving our goal - which is, after all, supposed to be regional security, peace and the avoidance of war?
There have been two Gulf wars in the last 20 years, and there's still time to fit in a third if we all want to. For the last month, that has apparently been the intention of the Americans, with Tony Blair ably following up the rear. We have assembled aircraft and ships enough to blow the most expensive holes in the desert ever seen. The result of the first Gulf War - a long, drawn-out and unspeakably violent clash between Iraq and Iran - was a bloody stalemate. For a short time, Iraq was still regarded as the bulwark of Western security against the mad mullahs of Tehran, and Saddam and his representatives were once more welcomed to the tents of the arms salesmen. Iraq felt it had received too little recompense for its role in protecting the Arab nation against the Shia onslaught from the East; it pushed things too far, invaded Kuwait, and the rest is history.
But it's unfinished history, because the solution put in place in 1991 resulted in just another stalemate. The framework of western policy after the Gulf War, set by America, was to contain both states, to enforce disarmament of Iraq, and to bring together the Arab states of the "coalition" into as permanent an alliance as possible. All this is crumbling into dust.
Whatever happens this week, there cannot be a second Desert Thunder. Once this confrontation is ended, the threat of force will never be as credible again. Just as America realised, in time, that the constant threat of air power in Bosnia was degrading its most valuable asset - credibility - so it must, surely, realise that the same thing is happening again in the Gulf.
There are plenty of other reasons why this policy must be ditched. It commands little or no support from the Arab "allies" in the Gulf; the latest crisis has served merely to underline the cracks in the "coalition". Nor are these states inclined to go along for much longer with the containment of Iran. Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of any regional security arrangement, would not agree to host any attacks on Iraq, and it is also cosying up to Tehran once again. Europe wants to get back into the Iraqi markets again, and it also wants to reap the benefits of oil and gas in central Asia, which means co-operating with Iran. Containment is, for all practical purposes, bankrupt.
It is also morally bankrupt. Since 1990, we have been blockading Iraq in the futile belief that this would encourage political change. It hasn't. The policy has failed, and the cost has been to the Iraqi people. This can't continue: it is morally wrong, and politically futile.
There are, realistically, only two options now. One is to insist that Iraq is a permanent and lasting threat to the security of the world, and treat it as such. That means military action on a much grander scale even than 1991; and no one is prepared to countenance that. The sons and daughters of America and Britain will not be allowed to die in a futile and bloody conflict to clear the way to Baghdad.
Short of war, of course, is "disruptive action," or "covert operations," or whatever other weaselly term one wishes to attach to the dirty little secrets of the intelligence agencies. But the evidence is that attempts to overthrow or undermine Saddam are doomed to failure before they start - bloody failures that blow up in the faces of those who plan and implement them.
So what else? The only other option is to start to deal with Iraq, to bring it out of the corner and start to treat it as a "normal" state. That will seem abhorrent to those who see it as a uniquely abnormal state, one bent on destroying what passes for peace in the Middle East, which tortures and kills its own people, actively prepares for war, and invades its neighbours.
But we aren't dealing with Iraq because it's nice; we're dealing with it because there's no other option. Short of turning it into a car park with those wonderful precision-guided munitions, we don't have any other reasonable course of action. That doesn't mean we have to learn to love Iraq, or its ruler: we simply have to deal with it, instead of shutting it in a box and pretending we can make it go away.
Over the last month, the threat of military action has been substituted for policy: a rank mixture of adrenaline and aviation fuel has taken the place of thinking. Military force has its place; but it can't solve political problems, and the Iraqi imbroglio is fundamentally a political question.
America will find it hard to think itself out of the current policy, defunct though it is. While the US was threatening military action, Britain followed along, gallantly bringing up the rear despite the increasingly evident strains within the Government. If confrontation is now off the agenda, Britain should (for once) take up the lead. We can, and should point the way towards a new way of tackling Saddam - one that does not require the threat of an annual Armageddon to be effective.Reuse content