Now is the moment for President Bush to show some real statesmanship

This may mean listening more to his allies, and more effort to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Harold Wilson didn't say - but might have done -- that a weekend is a long time in politics. Tony Blair rose in the Commons yesterday in significantly better political shape than might have been expected at the end of last week. Whatever the long-term consequences of the collapse of last weekend's summit in Brussels, in the short term the strident and full-scale press and Opposition campaign for a referendum to which he would have been exposed has been at worst deferred and at best defused. And in circumstances in which Mr Blair has not been cast into the classic Thatcherite role by taking the blame for the summit's demise. By rehearsing his denunciation of the Government's negotiating strategy, Michael Howard no doubt showed what an effective referendum campaign he is capable of leading. But Howard knows as well as anyone that this eurosceptic fox has - for now, and probably not fatally - been shot.

The more telling weekend event, however, has been the one with which Mr Blair opened his statement yesterday: the capture of Saddam Hussein. For all the reasons lucidly laid out on this page yesterday by Patrick Cockburn - most notably the fact that Saddam's seizure is very far from guaranteeing an end to guerilla violence in Iraq - the dangers of triumphalism are as great as they were when Baghdad fell eight long months ago. But in domestic politics mood matters. When, with laconic understatement, Dennis Skinner, a veteran Labour left winger, but also one for whom party solidarity is an article of faith, remarked after Blair's statement that this had been "not a bad weekend" and went on to describe both the Brussels failure and the capture of Saddam as "Christmas presents", everyone in the Commons knew what he meant.

The benefits to Mr Blair and President Bush, of course, are not identical. In the US, Saddam's capture has helped to strengthen Bush electorally. It came at the very moment that the Democrat establishment - including Al Gore, who must now be having second thoughts about the wisdom of his mild but decisive betrayal last week of the pro-war Joe Lieberman - appeared to be coalescing around the one unequivocally anti-war candidate, Howard Dean.

There are way too many dangers and uncertainties ahead - in Iraq as well as in the American Democratic party - for it to ensure victory for the President even if the election is dominated by the war. But it helps. For Mr Blair it is different. In Michael Howard he has an opponent who is just as unequivocally pro-war, so the electoral impact is nothing like as great. What it may help to do is to shift the argument on the war which still informs divisions within the Labour Party just a little his own way. That may be temporary; but with the Hutton report and a vote on top-up fees looming next month, temporary matters.

You could dissect for ever the comparative domestic effects. For President Bush, it is arguably even more of a boon, precisely because the US public was always more relaxed about the objective of regime change - of which Saddam's arrest is the final closure.

Mr Blair wanted regime change just as much - but it was not an objective that could legally justify the UN backing he so desperately sought in the run-up to the war. In consequence, he was forced to rely - and to persuade an only half-willing US administration to rely - on the so-far undiscovered weapons of mass destruction to make the case for war.

Conversely, the British government has less to fear from a war crimes trial that may well expose the cynical alliance between the US and the UK and Saddam in the very period when he was perpetrating some of his most evil acts against the Iraqi people. And that is for one simple reason, which is that it can and will point out that it was not a Labour government that was in power at the time - in contrast to the US, where the present Defence Secretary was one of the lubricants of that alliance.

But if it is taken as a given that the position of both men has been strengthened as a result of Saddam's arrest, the much more important question is how they - Bush in particular - will use it. Trying Saddam is only one case in point. It now looks certain that the tribunal announced by the Iraqi Governing Council will be the vehicle for that. On the one hand, it is patronising to Iraqis to suggest that there aren't lawyers and jurists fully capable of doing the job. A trial in Iraq gives its people the very catharsis that was denied the Serbs. On the other, it is no disrespect to the best people on the Council to point out that a judicial process in a country that is not yet a democracy will never have quite the authority as in one that is. Which is why there is a strong case for encouraging them to import a minority of international judges and lawyers, as permitted under the terms on which the tribunal was set up.

The temptation for the US is that it may be reluctant to hand over Saddam until it has persuaded the IGC to protect the US from its past embarrassments. In fact nothing would better underpin President Bush's recent and underrated statement that the US had been wrong in the past to support repressive Arab regimes, than to be open about its past in Iraq. But an international presence on the tribunal might help to guarantee transparency as well as due process.

But that's not all. The tempting way for George Bush to react to this outstanding success would be to say "I told you so" to those allies who failed to support him in the war, and withdraw further into unilateralism. The right way would be magnanimously to use the impressive advantage that the seizure has given him to start mending fences; instead, for example, of excluding France, Germany Russia and Canada from the slow process of reconstruction, to draw them into a more internationalist effort to rebuild the country.

This may mean listening more to his allies - including the British, but not only the British - and admitting some of the mistakes which terribly scarred the process of reconciliation and reconstruction in the weeks and months after the war. It may mean more effort to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population in the so-called Sunni Triangle at the expense of the heavy-handed military tactics which depend on the massive use of firepower. And conversely it may also mean a greater effort to dispel the impression that Saddam's seizure will hasten too great and too fast a pullback of American troops in time for the presidential election.

So far, the US has backed away even from seeking the minimalist UN resolution which was intended to provide international endorsement of the sovereignty handover intended for next June. This bodes ill for the new multilateralist approach that would hasten and underpin the struggle for stability and democracy in Iraq. President Bush has a chance for real statesmanship now. And to show it - thanks to the spectacular coup at ad-Dawr - from a position of strength rather than from weakness.