Leading Article: Taming Iraq takes more than might

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KOFI ANNAN's accord with Saddam Hussein has a "peace in our time" feel to it. The respite is deeply welcome but none of the root causes of military stand-off in the Gulf have changed, let alone diminished. The UN Secretary-General is not Neville Chamberlain and the Iraqi dictator is not, however coloured the language used about him, Adolf Hitler. It is hard, however, to escape the sense that his brave mission has postponed rather than avoided armed conflict.

But none of that is a good reason why the Americans, let alone the British Government should not accept - as quickly as protocol allows - that the UN Secretary-General has carried out his mission to Baghdad admirably. If Saddam has now accepted terms for the inspection process that bring him back into compliance, if he allows expert UN inspectors full and unfettered access, that must end the threat of bombing. And if, for face saving, adjustments are made to the nationalities comprising the inspection teams and if they are accompanied by diplomats, does that in any way reduce their potential effectiveness? The answer is no. The American government cannot now change the rules of the game, at least not without losing what remains of the fig-leaf cover for American strategic interests in the Gulf offered by United Nations camouflage.

As for Britain, now is a moment for the our government to show that it is capable of independent analysis and appraisal. Kofi Annan has demonstrated that diplomacy works, albeit temporarily, albeit only because aircraft carriers and cruise missiles were concentrating minds all round. Saddam is not mad; on the evidence of the past few weeks he is on the contrary a wily calculator of the negotiating odds well capable of rational judgements about his own best interests. The lesson must surely be that more diplomacy is wanted, not less. Robin Cook should now gird himself for a bout of action involving the Russians, the French and, above all, Saddam's neighbours in the Middle East - including of course the Israelis. If the British, at this juncture, were to demonstrate an ounce of originality in their analysis, a spark of realisation that Britain has interests separate from and possibly (in the short run) antagonistic to those of the US, then the capacity of British ministers and officials to exert influence would be maximised. Tony Blair's government seems to have been sucked into its present position if not quite in a fit of absence of mind then on the basis of knee-jerk support for what the current American government says are American interests. Mr Blair's loyalty to his pal is admirable but he might usefully pause to wonder whether Mr Clinton's judgement is always infallible.

For their part, the Americans, if they are wise, ought to welcome an opportunity to take a pace back and reflect. The agglomeration of armed might in the Gulf has been impressive and the world will doubtless have occasions in future to value the speed and effectiveness of America's planes and ships. Yet what has become apparent during the past few weeks are the limits of military strength. That the US could project force - launch any number of damaging air strikes - against Iraq is demonstrable. It still could. But in the absence of the diplomatic support across the region, let alone in the Security Council, the costs of unilateral action have grown; we did not need Tariq Aziz, Saddam's mouthpiece and deputy prime minister, to single out Britain to realise that this country shares not just America's strength but also its weakness.

What now? Unless the British government is going to commit itself to a permanent high-alert garrison in the Gulf, some situation of "normality" needs to be defined that would allow a military stand-down. "Normality" must also imply trade, or at least some increase in the wherewithal allowed the Iraqi regime to buy imports by selling oil. But is there a normality for Saddam short of his being allowed to re-arm and return to a state in which lightning attacks on neighbours becomes possible? The Iraqi problem is, whatever else, a regional question: his best protectors, the bars in the cage that will be needed to confine him, are his neighbours, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Russia. But there can be no movement on the regional front without confronting the principal regional problem (in Arab eyes) which is Israel or, to be more precise, the failure to grasp the opportunity offered by the Oslo accords to move the main Palestinian movement (the PLO) forward into responsibility and power.