Business as usual, or the new imperialism?

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CONFUSION about what the West is trying to achieve in Iraq runs deep and is becoming a serious international embarrassment. Rightly, since behind this local dilemma lies the biggest single question facing the United States and its allies in international affairs. Is there, or is there not, a 'new world order' in which the West tries to act as a benign imperialist, spreading democracy and defending minorities?

Iraq provides a near-perfect test. A new-world-order president would be intent on destroying Saddam while offering firm, long-term protection to the Kurds and marsh Arabs. He would be ready, with his allies, to stay in the Middle East indefinitely - with all the cost, and risk, that that involves. An old-world-order President Clinton would be content to tolerate any regime in Baghdad that did not directly threaten Western interests. It would be possible, if outlandish, to contemplate a white-mustachioed, grandfatherly Saddam still in power when Mr Clinton, and indeed John Major, have shuffled off to write their memoirs.

Mr Clinton's position on all this is, to put it politely, difficult to pin down. While campaigning he seemed a fervent new- world-order man, hot to topple Saddam, fervently keen to spread democracy. Then, in an interview after he was elected, he suggested there could be a 'normalisation' of relations with Saddam, then denied he had said it, then apologised for the denial. Yesterday's inauguration speech, promising democrats across the world that 'their cause is America's cause' carried at least a hint of enthusiasm for new-world-orderism.

In Whitehall there is some jitteriness that the new president will offer a surprise olive branch to Baghdad, but the general view is that he will be unable to change the Bush approach radically. Despite the US's awesome firepower, it cannot bring down Saddam without engaging in a renewed land war, for which there is no United Nations authority, and even less domestic enthusiasm.

Of the lesser alternatives, bombing will not dislodge the Iraqi regime. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no moral repugnance about the idea of assassination, but the advice is that Saddam is too difficult a target. Sanctions are no better; their effect in strengthening dictatorships has been well- tested in the post-war world. The Iraqi opposition groups are weak and divided; without Western military aid on the ground they would be slaughtered if they tried to return from exile.

So Western determination to 'get Saddam' is the Emperor's New Policy; and soon the whole world will be crying 'naked'. All the Western threats really amount to is a vague hope that some Baathist colonel with a Kalashnikov will finish off Washington's work for it. Meanwhile Saddam and his Revolutionary Council live in a limbo: in theory pinned down and diplomatically dead - yet still jumpingly, embarrassingly, around.

Even for the best brought-up people, the etiquette required for doing business with the living dead can be tricky. Before Christmas, for instance, Douglas Hurd allowed visas to Iraqi officials who wanted to visit Britain to discuss a contract for rebuilding their war-shattered telecommunications with a subsidiary of GEC. After being challenged about the matter in the Commons recently by the shadow Foreign Secretary, Jack Cunningham, Mr Hurd wrote back explaining that he is firmly committed to anti-Iraqi sanctions, but that 'there is no reason why a British firm should not discuss with the Iraqis the possibility of business once the sanctions are lifted. We took the decision to issue the visas (fewer than the Iraqis originally wanted) against that background.'

A trifle strange, surely? Strange that the same Government which supports bombing Baghdad factories, which is still under the cloud of the arms-for-Iraq inquiry, and which says privately that there can be no business as usual while Saddam survives in power, is helping to prepare for such business. At the very least it highlights the ambiguous and confused messages still being sent to Baghdad - Tomahawks today, telephones tomorrow.

Here again is the Clinton question, London-style. Mr Hurd is the most eloquent British exponent of the new world order, or benign imperialism. Yet here he hints that the old values still hold sway.

None of this is to suggest that the Gulf war was in vain. Saddam has lost his nuclear programme. Kuwait is independent. But a slow slide back to business as before would probably spell final disaster for the Kurds and the marsh Arabs (both peoples hated by most Iraqis, and disliked by neighbouring countries, too). Slowly, stealthily, Saddam would settle their hash. They would be 'forgotten' by the West in the interests of stability and business. Amnesty International would deluge MPs and Congressmen with anguished reports of disappearances and breaches of promises by Baghdad. But . . . the Gulf war was so long ago . . . so many constituents are working on Iraqi telecoms contracts . . .

That is the ignoble and wholly possible outcome of today's confusion on Iraq. The only alternative is the new world order - indefinite involvement, and a grim determination to outlast Saddam. It would test the patience and generosity of Western electorates and the determination of their leaders. It would be costly, dangerous and complex. Which is it to be? Business as usual, or the new imperialism? No question matters more for world diplomacy in the decade ahead.