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Why liberals owe a grudging debt to the threat of force

We liberals are never happy. Having fretted about war we are now uneasy about the peace. Having worried about the allies demonising Saddam, we now worry that he is stronger than ever. Having preferred a diplomatic solution all along, we now worry about whether diplomacy has been successful enough. There is a solution to the liberals' dilemma - to be a bit less grudging about the fact that force has shifted Saddam without a shot being fired. That said, it has not been liberalism's finest hour. Consider first, now that the immediate crisis is over, three myths that have built up during the Gulf crisis.

The first myth is that Britain was merely the lapdog of the US. Britain was never, once the crisis began, going to withhold its backing from the US. But it's becoming clearer that London played a significant role in persuading Washington that Kofi Annan's mission was worth trying. At a meeting convened in London, on 14 February, of the Middle East Regional Directors of the State Department, Quai D'Orsay, and the Foreign Office, Britain brokered a deal that made possible the Security Council's decision to sanction a heavily mandated mission by Annan.

The strategy was twofold: on the one hand, it maximised the chances of the diplomatic solution that most British ministers had always preferred. But it also had another, harder-edged benefit: if Kofi Annan were to come back empty-handed then it would have been much more difficult for the French and the Russians, having signed up to the Annan mission, to oppose, much less to veto, air strikes on Iraq. Second, the British were the principal authors, again in the face of some initial reluctance from Washington, of last week's UN resolution significantly increasing the oil-for-aid programme. Diplomatically, this no doubt helped to lure the French and the Russians a little closer to the US/UK position. But the larger virtue was that it was a policy which drew a clear and public distinction between the regime and the people who suffer cruelly under it.

The second myth is that the British government was somehow forsaking its Europeanism by siding with the Americans in threatening Saddam with force. You don't have to accept every dark ministerial hint that France was motivated in its opposition to force against Saddam only by commercial greed to appreciate that Britain was less isolated in Europe than it sometimes looked. Beside France and perhaps Greece, only Luxembourg has directly opposed British backing for the US stance. Luxembourg's egregious foreign minister, Jacques Poos, having excelled himself at the outset of the Balkan war by claiming that this was "the hour of Europe", went on to declare with equal absurdity of the latest Gulf crisis that while it might be desirable to threaten force on occasions, it would be quite another thing to carry the threat out. Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and probably Italy, would have all offered either military or logistical help, while Austria and Finland were showing signs of political support. And this may stem from a larger understanding of the price that has to be paid, on occasions, by the Nato allies for continuing US engagement in Europe.

The third myth is that the US and Britain should never have been prepared to use force against Saddam, and that diplomatic means alone could have achieved this week's solution. That flies directly in the face of experience. Whatever practical deficiencies the Baghdad agreement may turn out to have in its application to Unscom inspections of the all-important presidential sites, it is a huge advance on the position Saddam was taking before the threat of force started to loom and when he was denying any access to the sites at all. Nor, rather importantly, is it the view of the UN Secretary General. Watching Annan's and Tariq Aziz's press conference on CNN in a Brussels office on Monday, the Foreign Secretary and his senior officials displayed palpable tension as Annan went through the elaborate courtesies of thanking the Iraqi regime for its reception of his delegation. It was only when Annan said in answer to a question that diplomacy worked best when it was backed by "firmness and force" that Cook allowed himself the ghost of a smile. When Kofi Annan, the first man to dignify the UN office in recent years, says so, it's worth taking seriously.

This doesn't mean that there are no reasons for apprehension. Britain's representative at the UN was right to press yesterday for a clear explanation of Clause 4b of the agreement which rather opaquely refers to "specified detailed procedures" that will govern the inspection of the Iraqi presidential sites where chemical and biological weapons may be, if not made or stored, at least documented. It will be necessary, but possibly extremely difficult, for Britain and the US to secure in New York a clear mandate for acting against Saddam if he breaks the new agreement he signed this week. Blair was correct yesterday to warn that a "piece of paper signed by the Iraqi regime plainly cannot be enough". Saddam's hyper-spin throughout the Arab world will persuade many that he has tricked the Great Satan yet again. Above all he is still there.

All these are reasons why Blair was right not to be excessively triumphalist in the Commons yesterday. We liberals should be a little less grudging - not least because the UN suddenly matters again. Some of those who oppose the war do their case a disservice when they also denounce the peace. Those who complain that the objectives of bombing weren't clear shouldn't complain too much if achievements made without bombing have some ragged edges, too. It's a matter for quiet rejoicing that force worked, so far, without having to be used. And pace Jacques Poos, that only happens when those wielding the force are ready to use it. Blair and Clinton were; the outcome is something to celebrate.