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How to cure war fever

Facts are best for this outbreak

Simon Tisdale

It may come as a surprise to George Bush but the war over Iraq has already begun - in Britain. Among the warrior class that favours bashing Saddam, new cases of what might be termed second Gulf war syndrome are reported every day. Symptoms include hot flushes of rage, irrational and confused thinking, unsightly rashes of adjectives and the pathological impugning of the motives of those opposed to war.

These outbreaks of belligerence are naturally alarming to normal, healthy people - including, as polls indicate, a majority of the British public. Yet this early diagnosis of second Gulf war syndrome means that preventive measures can now have a good chance of success - before irreversible mistakes on Iraq are made.

In the absence of a lead from the Blair government, the warmongers have had an ideal opportunity to make their case. But under counter-attack from a phalanx of retired generals, former foreign secretaries, MPs, peers and battling bishops, they are failing to do so. Their positions grow untenable, their case becomes acute. The debilitating weakness of their arguments is exposed for all to see. These victims of second Gulf war syndrome may be pitied. But they must not be allowed to make victims of others, here or in the Middle East.

The recommended treatment for war fever is a strict diet of fact. The warmongers say Saddam is a terrorist. But the Bush administration's attempts to link him to September 11 and al-Qaida lack any evidential basis, as even US intelligence admits. Donald Rumsfeld claims al-Qaida fugitives are harboured by Baghdad. But this is an assertion without proof. In truth, the elderly US defence secretary sees al-Qaida everywhere - a classic symptom of second Gulf war syndrome.

Bush's people find more supposed evidence of terrorism in Iraqi financial aid to the Palestinians. But Saudi Arabia, Britain and the whole EU also send aid. In arguing the case for war, the best a recent Daily Telegraph editorial could offer on terrorist links was: "Ten years ago, it (Iraq) was implicated in a plot to assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait." Gotcha? Not really, chaps.

Warmongers say Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and will, sooner or later, blow us all up. This, Bush states, is the main reason why Iraq poses "a continuing, unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States".

If examined carefully, this claim refers to the possibility that Saddam will obtain a nuclear bomb at some time in the future. No credible expert, including Rolf Ekeus, the UN's chief weapons inspector from 1991-97, claims Iraq has that menacing capability now.

The Foreign Office does not make any such claim, either. It points only to precursor chemicals and munitions that UN inspectors failed to find before leaving Iraq in 1998 that may, or may not, constitute a potential Iraqi biological and chemical weapons capability.

This, presumably, is why the US and Britain have yet to produce the promised dossier of evidence on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This is why full UN inspections should be resumed and why recent Iraqi offers to cooperate should be taken up. And this is why the Economist's recent pro-war editorial teetered on the disingenuous: "The honest choices now are to give up and give in, or to remove Mr Hussein before he gets his bomb." This is not today's choice. Indeed, it is no choice at all. Gotcha again? Come off it.

Warmongers say Saddam poses a threat to his neighbours. In fact, he has assiduously repaired ties with the Arab League and has been courting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. He has even sent envoys to Iran. To a man, the Arab neighbours oppose a war - and so do Turkey and most Nato allies.

Waxing desperate, warmongers resort to the legal case. Saddam, they say, is in breach of several UN security council resolutions. But, as the Bishop of Oxford has argued, by threatening to attack a sovereign state without a specific UN mandate, without demonstrating just cause, and without exhausting all chances of a peaceful resolution, the US and Britain risk making an even greater mockery of the law.

If an attack on Iraq is ultimately justified by the US (as many suspect it will be) as an act of self-defence under article 51 of the UN charter, it will be time to tear up the charter. From then on, further acts of international aggression, perhaps by the US against Iran, or India against Pakistan, may confidently be anticipated.

When all else fails, warmongers resort, with unconscious irony, to morality. A man ever driven by instinct rather than intellect, Bush is the arch-exponent of this approach. In short, Saddam is "bad"; by implication, Bush and those who agree with him are "good". The president often falls back on this "us" versus "them" argument. It underpins his whole rationale for the global "war on terror". He was at it again at the weekend. "We owe it to the future of civilisation not to allow the world's worst leaders... to blackmail freedom-loving nations with the world's worst weapons," he said.

This sort of simplistic moralising is a bit embarrassing for high-minded warmongers. Yet note his use of "leaders" in the plural, a barb deliberately aimed at Tehran, Pyongyang and Tripoli. Bush's dose of second Gulf war syndrome is at an advanced stage. He may be beyond help.

Riding gallantly to Bush's rescue comes Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. For her, the reasons for bashing Saddam are obvious. She devotes her energies instead to questioning the motives of those who do not agree. These are the "appeasement factions". These are the people who are really ill, suffering from "a truly pathological anti-Americanism", she writes. The intimate bedfellows of those holding such views are "anti-Jewish hatred" and "Islamic fascism".

Gotcha? Give me a break. It is when the warrior class reaches this intemperate, logic-shredding point in its discourse that those opposed to the war know they can win. Everybody would like to see the back of Saddam. But containment, deterrence and negotiation, and economic, political and diplomatic pressure, are the ways to achieve this end. It is not exciting or even particularly satisfying. But it can work. Violence is Saddam's way. It should not be ours.

Whatever ranting warmongers may say, war on Iraq is not right, not sensible, not legal, and not inevitable. As anybody who stood on the road to Basra in February 1991 and witnessed the utter devastation that accompanied the bloody conclusion of the first Gulf war can testify, war is a sickness. But there is a cure.


Simon Tisdale is chief foreign affairs leader writer and assistant editor of the Guardian. After joining the paper's foreign news department in 1979, he undertook overseas assignments in Europe, Scandinavia and the United States and was foreign editor from 1994-98. He was also foreign editor of the Observer from 1996-98. This article is reproduced with the author's kind permission from the Guardian of 7 August 2002.


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