The US and Britain are giving Saddam just what he wants

Dictators need enemies
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My guess is that Saddam Hussein is more relaxed than Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at this moment. For the Iraqi dictator can scarcely suffer in a showdown with the United States and the United Kingdom. Sure, bombing raids will cause death and destruction, but Saddam does not see that as defeat. The President and Prime Minister, however, must know that their threats are empty or, if carried out, likely to be ineffective. I think they are on the brink of losing a giant game of bluff.

The Allied objective is to prevent Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction and threatening its neighbours. Probably the United Nations' inspectors have removed Iraq's nuclear capability, so the focus is almost exclusively on chemical and biological weapons. Neither of the only two effective methods of achieving this aim is available. Iraq will not give the inspectors the access and freedom of movement they require to finish their work. Nor, persuasion having failed, can the United States, on its own, or with its allies, put ground forces into Iraq to carry out the inspectors' work by force.

One reason why ground forces cannot be deployed on the scale required is that Saudi Arabia will not allow its bases, which are essential to such a policy, to be used. The Saudis fear that in defeat Iraq might split into a Kurdish north, a Sunni Muslim centre and a Shia Muslim south. They cannot tolerate such an outcome because a hostile Iran would support the Shia Muslim state on Saudi's northern frontier.

A second reason why there will be no second Gulf War is that neither the British nor the American publics are prepared to accept casualties. Mr Blair and President Clinton know this perfectly well. Their high standing would not survive body bags and grieving relatives. What would the deaths in action be for? To prevent one Middle East dictator conducting vile attacks on neighbouring dictators? It is not a convincing reason.

The US with Britain's help, therefore, is forced to rely upon air power alone. Unless Saddam backs down, the attempt will be made to destroy facilities for making or storing biological and chemical weapons, to put command and control centres out of action and to eliminate the special units of the Republican Guards. Never mind that it has been known since the 1920s, and confirmed during the Second World War, that air power alone cannot win wars. Even Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded Britain's forces in the Gulf war, wrote on Friday in The Daily Telegraph that "there are few, if any, examples of air power alone succeeding in defeating and bringing to heel such a determined and resolute enemy as Saddam".

In this particular case, the American planners simply do not know where existing chemical and biological weapons are stored. These munitions are small and easily concealed. Western intelligence is said to lack agents in Iraq. On the other hand, the location of some of the manufacturing plants that make the weapons is known, thanks to the work of the inspectors. But dare we bomb the plants? A retired US airforce colonel says that the only way to eliminate a chemical or biological facility is to "nuke it". Tam Dalyell MP asks "what happens when a bomb hits anthrax installations. What happens to the spores?" Good questions.

It is not just that air power cannot do the job, but that the very attempt would bring us substantial disadvantages. Saddam's most likely response to air attacks would be to evict the UN weapons inspectors. This is France's objection. The French say that it is unlikely that Iraq would welcome back the inspectors after a war. A Saudi daily newspaper has under-scored another disadvantage - "the danger is that a US-led military action could give the Iraqi leader the kind of victory he is looking for. Let one bomb miss its target and kill civilians and the regime will have a propaganda coup with television pictures of the victims."

So how have we got into this? American policy has been driven by the pride of a super- power, which cannot allow itself to be thwarted. It has not been rational calculation but an instinctive reaction: "we are the super-power; we will get our way." This country is alongside because Britain always is alongside. It has been an invariable feature of British foreign policy since the Second World War except for one occasion - Suez. When Britain and France invaded Egypt to protect the Suez Canal in 1957, the United States disapproved of what it saw as a colonial adventure. I don't object to us being a faithful ally as long as we get sufficient benefit. In Northern Ireland, for instance, President Clinton could play a useful role behind the scenes.

Is there a better way of dealing with Saddam Hussein? Yes. Policy should start from the well understood phenomenon that dictators always require external enemies in order to present themselves as the saviours of their people. Once they can do that, they can impose all sorts of privations and restrictions. For Hitler the threats were the Bolsheviks and an international Jewish conspiracy. In the Balkans the fear has been that one ethnic group will swamp another. President Saddam couldn't want for two better enemies than the United States and Britain. His defiance of us brings him admiration.

Western thinking thus has to move in the opposite direction. The United Nations' inspectors have substantially emasculated Saddam's ability to wage war. We should start to bring their work to an end and progressively lift sanctions.

As Iraq began to export oil again, thus gaining the resources for economic recovery, the incomes of ordinary Iraqis would begin to rise. Initially, President Saddam would be praised for his "victory". But then the absence an external enemy on the scale of the world's super power would begin to tell. Ordinary Iraqis would become more self-confident, the dictator's rule more irksome. Conditions for the overthrow of Saddam would at last be favourable. That, finally, is all we can hope to achieve. It is much more than bombing raids can bring us.