Bill should pickle it for posterity

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ON WEDNESDAY evening, just before the first missile attack on Iraq, I happened to be in the Foreign Secretary's office, admiring his clockwork radio. As well as this useful gadget Mr Cook has a hotline to the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but his special advisor told me earlier in the evening that it has rung only a couple of times. On the second occasion, during an important meeting, the room fell silent while Mr Cook went to answer it. "Is that Wayne's mum?" a voice inquired. This story sounds almost too good to be true, a contemporary version of those innocent-sounding exchanges you find in old spy novels. "I'm not expecting Wayne home tonight," would mean, in the current context, that an attack on Iraq was in preparation or had already begun.

By some bizarre coincidence - a much more convincing one than President Clinton's decision to launch air strikes the day before an impeachment hearing was due to start in Washington - the first missile launches took place as journalists gathered for the annual Foreign Office Christmas bash in the magnificent setting of the Locarno Room. Rumours about the raids had been circulating during the afternoon and Mr Clinton's humiliation appeared to be so imminent that, when I arrived in Whitehall, I half expected to see a neon sign, like the ones you see in chip shop windows, announcing simply "bombing tonight".

No such luck, though I did get a guided tour of the extraordinary murals which surround the grand staircase leading up to the Locarno Room. Muscular, Teutonic, and something of an embarrassment to any administration which doesn't harbour colonial ambitions, their centrepiece is Pax Britannica, a towering female figure to whom the assembled nations of the world look up admiringly. As Mr Cook pointed out, the childish forms of Bosnia and Serbia cling winsomely to Britannia's draperies, while Russia is shrouded in deepest black, mourning the Revolution and holding herself apart from the celebration of Britain's success in the First World War.

By the end of the evening, when I passed the mural again on my way out of the building, I had got to thinking about an appropriate image to celebrate the new world order represented by last week's relentless assault on Iraq. The problem, I think, is two-fold. First of all, Britain's role in the Pax Clintoniana is decidedly second-fiddle, a fig leaf for the American administration's claim that it is not acting high-handedly or unilaterally when it incinerates Iraqi civilians. It is quite clear that the presence in the Persian Gulf of Our Brave Boys, as they have inevitably been dubbed by the tabloid press, is a political favour from Tony Blair to Mr Clinton and not a military necessity.

The second and more interesting iconographic problem is how to come up with an image to represent Britain's role in the War of Clinton's Dick which isn't revoltingly pornographic. What comes immediately to mind is a mural of the President's bulky torso, straddling the Middle East like a colossus - and naked except for Mr Blair's adoring features, strategically positioned to protect Mr Clinton's modesty. Sadly, even if we leave the question of taste aside for a moment, the idea is preposterous. Mr Clinton does not have any modesty to protect, nor any of the other qualities which most of us hope for in democratically elected leaders, such as integrity or the capacity to feel shame.

And I'm not sure Mr Blair would like to see himself portrayed, no matter how accurately it reflects his current relation to Mr Clinton, on his knees alongside that other essential player in the drama, the voluptuous (and for these purposes scantily clad) Ms Monica Lewinsky. Saddam Hussein would be smirking in a corner, watching the smoke rise over Baghdad, aware that he has just given the President a small gift - a brief stay in the process of impeachment - and received a much larger one in return. As a Muslim friend in London told me last week, the Anglo-American raids may have caused untold damage to Iraq's infrastructure, as well as killing and wounding some civilians, but their chief effect is to strengthen Saddam's position in the Middle East as the national leader most likely to defy Western aggression.

One of the things I have always disliked most about Mr Clinton is his religiosity, a trait he shares with Mr Blair. Last week it emerged as a central tenet of the Pax Clintoniana, when the two governments earnestly explained that the timing of the air strikes was decided not by Mr Clinton's domestic problems but a desire to complete them before the start of Ramadan. The words of an old song, "Never on Sunday", promptly came into my head, along with a niggling doubt as to whether there is Scriptural authority for bombing people during Advent. Such theological questions are beyond the scope of this column, but I think I've solved the problem of an image to sum up British foreign policy in the late 1990s. What's needed is an installation consisting of a pickled phallus, in a simple glass case, by the artist Damien Hirst.