President Bush's bold gamble in the Middle East seems to be paying off

It would be absurd to allow all the sexing up in No 10's repertoire to taint the moral grandeur of the Allies' mission
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The Independent Online

Farcical events should not be allowed to obscure great issues. The justification for the war against Saddam does not depend upon Alastair Campbell's integrity. If Mr Campbell was not guilty of cynicism and manipulation over Iraq, then he was innocent for the first time in his spinning career - yet it does not matter. If he and his boss were guilty of misleading the British people, they deserve political punishment, but a good case should not be discredited by devious advocates.

Nor should tragic events be allowed to overshadow great issues. Even though British soldiers are still being killed - and more will be, for a long time to come - it was not wrong to invade Iraq. Even so, there are lessons to be learned from the deaths of those six military policemen, and the generals cannot escape a share of the blame. They have been far too eager for far too long to do their duty with inadequate resources; they have been too reluctant to put pressure on ministers to rectify equipment weaknesses. A friend of mine in the Territorial Army tells me that he has never known an exercise to be completed without the communications systems breaking down. If that happens in the UK, imagine the difficulties in the stress of combat thousands of miles from home base.

This is not a new problem, and the current government cannot be held solely responsible. For years, we have been running a make-do-and-mend army held together by sticking plaster, and courage. Given the scale of current and future commitments, the PM ought to force the Treasury to come up with another £1bn, not for flashy new hi-tech programmes but for radios that work and proper supplies of ammunition. Man for man, we have the finest soldiers in the world. The rest of us ought not to exploit their willingness to fight and die for their country by sending them into action with defective kit, thus incurring unnecessary casualties.

That said, casualties in Iraq have been very light so far, given the size of the country and the scale of the problems. Our casualties are also vastly outweighed by the humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people. That is a by-product of the war; we overthrew Saddam to eliminate a threat to the West, not to end his oppression in Iraq. But we can still take credit for ending the torture and the massacres - as long as we have the will to see the mission through.

Here, much depends on American resolve. Unlike us, our transatlantic allies are not natural imperialists. Throughout its history, the US has felt uneasy whenever it has found itself ruling other peoples, and has usually done everything possible to shorten their tutelage. Americans have a tendency to believe that liberation plus democracy equals bring the boys home.

It may be several years before Iraq is sufficiently pacified to make it safe to bring the boys home. In calculating likely time scales for Iraq's political development, South Korea ought to be a cautionary tale. It is small and homogeneous. It has the unifying factor of an external threat, and social stability comes more naturally to Koreans than it does to Iraqis. Yet it took the South Koreans almost 50 years to evolve a stable democracy. It could be that some form of effective pre-democratic administration will emerge in Iraq, providing a framework for the resolution of ethnic and religious disputes. But even that will take time. The Americans will need to possess their souls in patience, which they have never been good at doing.

They also need to be patient over Iran. The mullah regime is no more stable now than the Shah was a year or so before his overthrow, and a new dispensation in Iraq would be marvellous news, transforming the balance of power in the region, greatly to the West's advantage. But there is little that the Americans can do to bring this about. On the contrary: the mullahs are desperately attempting to shore up their position with anti-American propaganda, blaming all the unrest on American agents. They would, of course, try that anyway, whatever the Bush Administration said or did. But there is no point in assisting their efforts. When asked about Iran, American spokesmen should confine themselves to saying that the US has no quarrel with the Iranian people who ought to be allowed to determine their own destiny. The less the US seems to be intervening, the quicker that day may come.

Moreover, the Americans will need all their interventionist energies to maintain the momentum in Palestine. Thus far, everything is on course. The news that Hamas and Islamic Jihad may be about to call a ceasefire is a remarkable tribute to George Bush's road-map. Three months ago, the Bush Administration gave a warning to the Israelis. This may all fail, said the Americans - but you make sure that if it does, you are not to blame. It now appears that even the godfathers of suicide bombing are becoming reluctant to volunteer for blame.

A Hamas ceasefire would intensify the pressure on the Israelis. There are two broad strategies that Israel could adopt in the region. They could decide to sit out President Bush's pressure, to wait for the peace process to collapse and to stay on the West Bank. That would avoid the domestic political turbulence arising from the removal of the settlements. It would also guarantee continued Israeli conflict with the Arab world and would probably doom the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Some Israeli ultras have always insisted that a Palestinian state already exists, in Jordan. If this peace process fails, they may get their way. If so, it would also be a terrorism-sponsoring state.

The biggest threat to civilisation in the 21st century will come from the danger of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. If Israel continues to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, that danger will grow until it becomes almost inevitable. The state of Israel could be destroyed, in a second Holocaust.

The alternative Israeli strategy is land for peace. A deal with the Palestinians would not eliminate risk, for there would still be plenty of Arab irreconcilables, as dedicated as ever to the destruction of Israel. But if there were a proper Palestinian state, such characters would have less support. It would be easier to frustrate them and hunt them down. For the foreseeable future, the Israelis will continue to live in a dangerous neighbourhood. But the wisest response to that is not a war of all against all. It is a neighbourhood watch.

That is what the Americans are trying to inspire. Twenty-one months ago, President Bush embarked upon the most audacious geo-strategic gamble in history. He decided to risk chaos in an already dangerous region in order to create future stability; he set out to use war to bring peace. Though it is far too early to claim that he has succeeded, there are more grounds for optimism than for pessimism. It would certainly be absurd to allow all the Horlicks and sexing up in No 10's repertoire to taint the moral grandeur of the Allies' mission, which is even worth the lives of brave men. They did not die in vain.

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