Leading article: Jaw before war in Iraq

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IN HIS interview with the BBC before leaving Washington yesterday, Tony Blair's main concern appeared to be to educate his audience in von Clausewitz's maxim about war being the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Some listeners might have felt tempted to pinch themselves. Was this really that nice, emollient, inclusive Mr Blair threatening air strikes? The image of the Prime Minister fingering Churchill's cigar floated across the mind. Mr Blair was clearly enjoying his first major foray on to the global stage. He cannot be blamed for that. War, or the threat of it, is an exhilarating prospect for any statesman. It is the time when every one of their decisions and omissions count.

There must be a small part of Mr Blair's and Mr Cook's brains - the part which contains modesty - which reflects that a year ago, they were Opposition politicians with no more potent weaponry than the soundbite. Now they are at the heart of the West's most difficult decision since the end of the superpower conflict. Mr Blair did not show signs of succumbing to the fog of war. His emphasis was on diplomacy rather than military options. He will give support to President Clinton, but he has not indicated that he will support the bombing of Iraq, come what may. Nor should he. It is by no means easy to attain the objective Britain and the US have in view - forcing Saddam Hussein to permit inspection of his weapons facilities - by military action. It would be even more difficult if Clinton were to allow the Pentagon to push them into adopting wider goals, namely the removal from power or the assassination of Saddam Hussein. It is true that either of these events would cause few tears to be shed in the West. In truth, it is hard to see how the West can enforce its weapons restrictions in the long term if Saddam stays in power. But the dangers of a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful conflict are great enough without making the political or the physical end of Saddam the object of the exercise. The situation is the reverse of 1991, when George Bush's commanders, in charge of an unwieldy alliance, were pressing him to define his aims as closely as possible. This time, it is the Pentagon which is pressing for a widening of the objectives.

This shift explains why Washington's only unequivocal supporter is Britain, even though everyone insists that Saddam must submit to inspection. The trouble is that the Iraqi dictator, the only man known to have used chemical weapons in the past half-century, needs to have the threat of force constantly before him if he is to be budged. That threat has been delivered clearly enough during Mr Blair's visit to Washington. Not only Britain and America's allies, but also voters at home, must be reassured that all ladders for Saddam to climb down have been offered before force is contemplated. Remember Clausewitz: war is an extension of diplomacy. It is not a substitute for it.

To that end, Britain has been prominent in spelling out the benefits Iraq would gain for compliance, in the shape of an improved oil for food deal, and pilgrimages to Mecca. Those points must be reinforced by the Foreign Secretary, who devoutly hopes that the hardening of support in the Gulf for any military action will be enough to ensure Iraq's compliance with the UN's demands. If that does not work, however, there may be no alternative to force - but applied as intelligently as possible. If it is obvious, for example, that target selection is based almost entirely on information from the United Nations weapons inspectors, it helps to make President Saddam's case that they are nothing more than intelligence agents for the US and Britain.

The avoidance of civilian casualties is essential. Apart from anything else, that would help Saddam convince his war-weary subjects that the West rather than he is the principal cause of their misery. By its very nature, however, war is unpredictable, and we will not be able to judge Mr Blair's response until he has faced this decisive test of leadership. His partners in this enterprise do not give cause for complete confidence. In Moscow an unpredictable President Yeltsin says at one moment that an attack on Iraq could bring world war, the next that the "worst is over". President Clinton remains in danger of being driven from office by the Lewinsky scandal, something which cannot be entirely absent from his mind when he considers the domestic political consequences of military action against Iraq. Of all the cool heads we need now, one of the most important belongs to our own new Prime Minister.