The war machine is rolling - but it can be stopped

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The Independent Online
BY NEXT weekend, we may be at war with Iraq. Bombs and missiles could be raining down on Iraqi civilians, claiming hundreds if not thousands of lives - and will it make any difference? Throughout the last week, I have had the feeling that we are sleepwalking towards war while life in Britain, in a slightly surreal way, goes on much as usual. Cabinet ministers turn out in force for the Brit Awards and the deputy prime minister issues a statement deploring an anarchist who frightened the "womenfolk" on his table - which just goes to show which century Mr Prescott is living in.

But this is how Cool Britannia goes to war - calmly, casually, with its mind on more important things like whether The Verve will be voted best group. Our government knows that even if diplomacy fails by Friday, when the first moonless night in February provides safe flying conditions over Iraq for American Stealth bombers, British losses will be confined to the odd Tornado. For most of us it will be a virtual war, reported in terms - surgical strikes, smart weapons, collateral damage - which cover up the nasty reality of severed limbs and broken bodies.

There is irony upon irony here. Princess Diana's humanitarian campaign against land-mines, applauded by new Labour ministers, is cited as evidence of how much we, as a nation, have changed. We are supposed to care passionately these days about injured children in Bosnia, Angola, Afghanistan - but where is the public outcry against a bombing campaign which will inflict further disasters on a population struggling to survive the combined effects of the 1991 war and economic sanctions?

On Thursday evening, a group of dissident Labour MPs held a meeting at Westminster, where Harold Pinter made an impassioned speech against the war. At the same time, Cardinal Hume wrote to Tony Blair expressing doubts as to whether military targets in Iraq could be hit without causing "disproportionate harm". These interventions aside, the voices of protest have been surprisingly muted - a situation made all the more extraordinary by the fact that so many military experts have questioned the capacity of air strikes to curb Saddam Hussein's weapons programme. The British government is proposing to embroil us in a war which cannot achieve its objectives, which does not have the support of the Secretary General of the United Nations, and which will strengthen the position of President Hussein in the Middle East.

Does anyone care? It begins to look as though we don't, as long as our involvement in this obscene adventure does not threaten us personally. A more charitable explanation is that we have been drugged by technology, lulled by displays of expensive hardware - those elegiac photographs of missiles caressed by rosy-fingered dawn - into believing that war has become a clean operation, carried out by machines rather than human beings. Or a sophisticated computer game, with incidental music by Prodigy and The Verve.

This certainly seems to be the view of ministers, who devoted most of Thursday's Cabinet meeting to a discussion of the war - 40 minutes out of a meeting lasting three-quarters of an hour, apparently - and gave Tony Blair their unanimous backing. "No one spoke against it. Force is the only thing that may move Saddam," a source said afterwards. I'm not clear whether this means that decent people such as Clare Short, Chris Smith and Mo Mowlam actively support bombing raids or whether they feel the decision is out of their hands, taken by Mr Blair and Mr Clinton in Washington 10 days ago.

Whatever lies behind their acquiescence, I find it profoundly shocking. Bearing in mind the strength of the case against war with Iraq, the fact that no one was prepared to stand up to Mr Blair suggests that he exerts a presidential-style dominance over his Cabinet. This may, incidentally, explain Clare Short's decision to air her grievance against another, unnamed minister on television this weekend. An impression is gaining ground that the hallmark of Mr Blair's administration is factional fighting between ministers, conducted in a sullen atmosphere of leaks and smears, rather than vigorous political debate.

It's a far cry from the relaxed, informal atmosphere Mr Blair was supposed to have encouraged at his first Cabinet meetings. It may also be that his ministers' apparent impotence reflects a feeling in the country that the war machine is rolling, and can't be stopped. So it is worth pointing out that war is imminent, but has not yet begun. It isn't too late to speak out, to hold meetings and lobby MPs. This kind of activism is out of fashion but new Labour needs to understand that the consequences of war in the Gulf are unpredictable, and may even rebound where it really hurts - on Mr Blair's personal popularity.

AS IT happens, we've already been reminded this week of one of the effects of Britain's partisan policy in the Middle East. Mohammed Al-Fayed's claim that the car carrying his son Dodi and Princess Diana was forced off the road in a conspiracy involving British intelligence has been dismissed by French police. It is as self-serving as Mr Fayed's assertion that the Princess uttered dying words about the possessions she had left in Dodi's Paris flat.

It is impossible, however, to escape the knowledge that some version of this conspiracy theory is widely believed, right across the Middle East and even in Britain. A black friend rang me, immediately after the Princess's death, and opened the conversation with the blunt question: "So who do you think killed her?" She is unshakeable in her conviction that MI5, MI6 or some other shadowy intelligence agency would not allow the Princess to marry an Arab, and that the crash was engineered by someone who escaped in the missing Fiat Uno.

I don't believe any of this for a moment, but such rumours flourish against a background of double standards, in an atmosphere of deep cynicism engendered by Britain's insistence on punishing Iraq for violations of UN resolutions while ignoring serious breaches elsewhere. The revelation last week that the US was resisting access to some of its chemical weapons sites, and has denied entry to Iranian and Cuban inspectors, will only fuel more conspiracy theories about its motives and those of its supine ally, Britain.

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