The past week began with the first co-ordinated anti-war demonstrations across Britain, the Continent and the US. It continued with insistent questioning of the Prime Minister – by his party, by Commons committee heads and by MPs – on the wisdom of joining the Americans in a war against Iraq. And it drew to a close with Mr Blair being heckled at a north London meeting to which entry had been especially carefully restricted.
Yet half-way through the week I was told by a senior government official – he knows who he is – that "now is not the time to put the case for war; no one is putting the case for war". Well, you could have fooled me – and I dare say a lot of other people in this country, judging by the groundswell of anti-war sentiment reflected in opinion polls, newspaper postbags and all that public questioning and heckling.
If the Government has not been trying to make the case for war, it has certainly done a splendid job of galvanising opposition to one. Which constitutes a signal failure for a government so committed to moulding opinion and often so adept at doing so. If, in all his impassioned attacks on Saddam Hussein and Baghdad, Mr Blair has not been trying to make the case for war, what has he been doing? Let me cite my "senior official" once more. "We must increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein; he ought to have got the message by now. If we can increase the pressure to the point where he accepts that the UN resolutions will be enforced, others will get the message."
In other words, all the tough talk and all these troop mobilisations are intended not to persuade the British public of the need for war, but to convince Baghdad that the "international community" is in earnest, or – in official-speak – to "make the threat of war credible".
The difficulty for Mr Blair, however, is that the message being addressed to Saddam is being heeded, it seems, almost everywhere but Iraq. The French and German leaders have been followed by senior Russian and Chinese officials in publicly rejecting a rush to war. With much of the Arab world distinctly unenthusiastic, this will make it hard for the hard line being peddled by President Bush and Mr Blair to prevail at the UN Security Council unless there is incontrovertible proof that Iraq has been engaged in developing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, despite its protestations to the contrary.
The lack of such proof so far is the greatest obstacle to Mr Blair in convincing opinion in this country of the need for war. Eleven empty chemical weapons shellcases dating back to the 1980s do not constitute proof. Nor do the British and US government "dossiers" that itemise the amount of weaponry unaccounted for by Iraq since the Gulf War and President Saddam's past crimes. Nor does the rhetoric, however impassioned, of Mr Blair and some of his ministers. All their insistence that they "believe" or even "know" President Saddam is "lying", "concealing evidence", intimidating scientists, or "cynically deceiving" the UN, cannot disguise this absence of proof.
American officials express confidence that, when the time comes, European countries will willingly join an anti-Iraq coalition, just as they did before the Gulf War, and public opinion will be supportive. So far, though, circumstances are quite different.
Back in 1991, Iraq had invaded Kuwait and was in occupation. Only when Baghdad had rejected all appeals to leave was armed force applied. Whatever anyone's feelings about the existence or validity of "international law", Iraq had clearly violated every principle of acceptable conduct.
Mr Bush and Mr Blair may be trying to bludgeon Baghdad into capitulating without a fight. But it will take a higher standard of proof than is currently on offer to convince a majority in Britain and on the Continent that the only possible solution is war.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies