Can six slighted Americans be worth a war?

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The Independent Online
PICTURES in newspapers of men in helmets carrying missiles. Sketch maps of the Middle East accompanied by lists of weaponry. Agency photos of an American airman, Jamie Downey, washing "an EA-6B Prowler" aircraft on USS Nimitz in the Gulf. Whether or not the Western allies intend to go to war with Iraq over the expulsion of American weapons inspectors, one thing is clear: rampant technophilia has broken out again.

On Thursday, the British government ordered the aircraft carrier Invincible to sail for the Middle East, where an American battle group, based around the Nimitz, is already in position. Britain has a dozen Tornado fighter- bombers in the area, armed with the latest laser-guided bombs, while the US has at its disposal various "smart" weapons. It's all high-tech stuff, designed to strike fear into Saddam Hussein, and the Americans claimed this week that their Tomahawk cruise missiles "are twice as accurate as the ones used during the Gulf war".

This is nothing like as impressive as it sounds. The truth about the bombardment of Iraq in 1991, in spite of promotional videos by arms manufacturers and excited reports of the astonishing accuracy of new weapons systems, is that most of it failed to reach its target. Of course we weren't told this at the time: on the contrary, after the first full day of the war, the Allies boasted that their success rate for air strikes on airfields, command centres and missile bases was 80 per cent. A couple of weeks later, as Iraq launched Scud missile attacks on Israel from military sites which had supposedly been destroyed, the Americans were forced to admit the air strikes had been nothing like as successful as they claimed.

A year later, the Pentagon revealed that less than 7,000 of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait had been precision-guided. More to the point, 70 per cent missed their targets altogether. Perhaps the technology has improved dramatically in the five-and-a-half years since the war ended. It seems equally likely that the same old propaganda is being pumped out again. I'm sure we will soon be hearing about missiles so accurate they can home in on Baghdad, turn first left, second right, and stop for civilians at a zebra crossing.

WHY, in any case, are we considering further military action against Iraq? Saddam Hussein is a bully who needs to throw his weight about from time to time in order to convince himself he is still a significant player on the world stage. His demand that six American weapons inspectors leave the country, out of an international force of 78, is both petty and petulant. It makes him feel better, without really impeding the important work that the team is supposed to be carrying out - preventing him from making nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It was the UN - in this case, effectively the Americans and the British - that chose to pull the entire team out on Thursday night, thus playing right into Saddam's hands.

We know there have been anti-American demonstrations in Baghdad, where Saddam has once again managed to present himself as the only Arab leader currently prepared to stand up to the West. However skewed this perception may be, it has resonance in a part of the world that believes the UN is far from even-handed in its treatment of countries that defy its resolutions. Even Arabs who loathe Saddam are aware that Indonesia and Israel, to cite only two examples, have ignored UN resolutions without facing the threat of military action; they may also be aware that successive British governments, faced with Indonesia's brutal and illegal occupation of East Timor, have continued to sell arms to the regime.

The sense of injustice engendered in the Middle East by the UN's blatantly partisan approach should not, even in the present bellicose atmosphere, be underestimated. Nor can it be much comfort to Saddam's many victims to see the Western allies reacting so ferociously to little more than a slight. Thousands of people, dissidents and Kurds alike, have been murdered during his dictatorship, yet the UN has chosen to go to the brink of war over the expulsion of six people.

This may play well in the United States, where Bill Clinton's troubled presidency requires a series of distractions, but it looks to me more like posturing than a principled response by the international community to the long-term problem of how to deal with Saddam's thoroughly unpleasant regime.

THE SUBJECT of Iraq came up when I took part in the BBC's Question Time programme on Thursday night, and I was unsurprised to discover that the rest of the panel, and most of the audience, disagreed with me about the UN's role. But I didn't get anything like as hard a time as poor Brian Wilson, the very nice Scottish Office minister who had the unenviable task of defending the Government's decision to exempt Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising. Wilson and John Redwood, the shadow trade and industry secretary, traded insults over donations from Bernie Ecclestone and Asil Nadir, prompting Hugh Dykes, the former Tory MP who recently joined the Lib Dems, to declare that only he and I could be trusted to tell the truth.

David Dimbleby bridled when I remarked that I was the token woman on the panel, insisting there is a difference between "token" and "only". (True, but when you keep being asked on radio and TV programmes along with three or four men in suits, the distinction isn't always obvious.) We all agreed that girl power is something of a media myth, and that the Spice Girls make awful records. The night's big revelation, however, was so unexpected that I hardly dare mention it in case I ruin his reputation.

John Redwood is clever, charming and sexy. There, I've said it. Before the programme, when he discovered I hadn't appeared on Question Time before, he went out of his way to put me at ease. He told me that he opposes the Government's plan to charge tuition fees for students, which he denounced as a "tax on learning". Male journalists may think he's an extra-terrestrial but he struck me as a lot more human than some of the New Labour front bench.