Downing Street [the residence of the Prime Minister] is at panic stations as the full implications of Hans Blix’s inspections report sink in.
The two main US-British arguments in favour of launching a war on Iraq next month – that Saddam currently possesses deployable weapons of mass destruction and poses an immediate or near-term threat to the region and to us – already had few takers before Friday’s UN meeting.
In his peculiarly dispassionate, persuasive way, Blix further undermined and, for many, destroyed the credibility of the Anglo-American case for an early, pre-emptive attack.
A third core argument, favoured by George Bush and blithely reiterated by him in Florida last week – that Saddam is in cahoots with al-Qaida and is somehow linked or even to blame for 9/11 – is not seen as convincing even by those who have espoused it. Downing Street now knows this argument, too, is a definitive non-runner.
Assailed on all sides by unprecedented popular protest, at odds with Europe, outnumbered in the security council, with the Pentagon’s clock inexorably ticking, and rightly worried that an impatient Bush may reject the “UN route”, dish his British ally and press on regardless, Tony Blair has now reached his bottom line: morality.
With his back against the wall, belatedly aware of the depth of his difficulty, and surrounded by the empty shell casings of a defeated polemic, Blair played his last card in Glasgow at the weekend.
Action was a moral imperative, he declared. If Saddam remains in power, he warned emotively, there will be “consequences paid in blood”. The moral case for intervention was overwhelming. Those who opposed it, he implied, were themselves acting immorally.
In many respects, this is an outrageous statement. It reeks of condescension.
In his wisdom, it seems, the prime minister is suggesting that millions of weekend marchers and all those in the European, Arab and Muslim spheres who disagree have failed to think through the ethical ramifications of their stand.
But since Blair can be sure to repeat his moral message in the two or three weeks that remain before Bush is expected to press the button, it must be answered.
How moral is it, to take one aspect, to wreck an inspections process unanimously agreed by the UN?
Blair and Jack Straw endlessly stress the exact terms of resolution 1441. But this document sets no time limit on inspections. It makes no mention of the regime change that Blair now advocates. Nor does 1441’s text authorise the conquest, indefinite occupation and forcible remaking of Iraq under US military auspices.
Exactly how moral is it, as is now the US-British plan in the next fortnight, to gerrymander UN backing for war by buying votes with US financial largesse?
Blair’s new concept of the “unreasonable veto” and the quaint idea of claiming a “moral mandate” from a simple majority UN vote has no base in international law. Nor, for that matter, does the concept of an offensive war, as opposed to collective, defensive action. The US and Britain have no moral right to try to reinterpret and thus subvert the UN charter in this way.
The onus is surely on Blair, not his opponents, to explain the morality of rejecting Blix’s provisional conclusion that his inspections are beginning to work.
It is not “moral” to turn to the “last resort” of violence when Iraq has conceded many of the UN’s demands and when South Africa, for example, is offering its good offices and experience in assuring nuclear disarmament.
The onus is surely also on Blair to show the Vatican and, say, Britain’s Anglican and Muslim leaders, why and on what grounds his moral authority exceeds theirs.
Having made his bid for the high ground, the prime minister has many other dilemmas to clarify. The Iraq crisis has entrenched the Israel-Palestine stalemate.
War will bring further delays to the peace process. But Palestinian children are suffering malnutrition right now. For many, international intervention to secure the occupied territories is a more pressing priority.
Or consider the Kurds. In the event of war, their hard-won autonomy will be under direct threat from a US-sanctioned, Turkish military incursion. Kurds were among the biggest victims of (deeply immoral) US-British military assistance to Saddam in the 1980s.
They were victims again in 1991, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Now it seems they must suffer once more – but this time, for a Blair-defined moral good.
Such questions must all be weighed in the overall balance of good and bad. Likewise, too, the central prop of the Blair case: that intervention is morally justified on humanitarian grounds. There is no doubt, after all, of Saddam’s tyranny, no argument that the Iraqi people are oppressed. It is pointless to dispute the sincerity of Iraqi exiles who insist his overthrow is more important than anything else.
The moral dimension of the Iraq crisis is plain to all. Unfortunately, for a man now mawkishly keen to demonstrate poll-defying “conviction” leadership, there are no absolutely right answers.
Against those who have suffered under Saddam in the past must be set the humanitarian catastrophe that the UN says may leave up to 10 million hungry. The World Health Organisation estimates that 100,000 Iraqis could be casualties and another 400,000 affected by disease and displacement.
Expert Non-Government Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty utter similar warnings – concerns candidly shared by Clare Short. From within Iraq itself, meanwhile, come first-hand accounts of the terror and anger that the prospect of attack elicits.
Yet from the US, at least, comes little but vague promises of minimised civilian casualties and “post-liberation” nation-building. To gauge the value of such pledges, one need only look at Afghanistan
Again, if humanitarian con cern is now the prime motivating factor in international intervention, there are many more urgent candidates, such as Congo, or North Korea, or southern Africa where millions are starving (and misgoverned) right now. On the other hand, it is clear that Iraq is not a Kosovo, where ethnic cleansing was an immediate, urgent horror or a fledgling East Timor, crying out for external assistance.
In truth, perhaps the principal measure of Iraq’s jeopardy is not to be found in present-day humanitarian abuses, but in the depth of Bush’s personal enmity towards Saddam. A prime Blair interest, meanwhile, is maintaining the transatlantic alliance. That is strategically important. But it is hardly a moral necessity.
With so many possible or likely negative consequences, and with US motives and follow-through in doubt, it cannot be reasonably or objectively concluded that war against Iraq is morally preferable to the alternatives.
Nobody advocates doing “nothing” about Iraq, as No 10’s panic-station chief, John Reid, fatuously suggested yesterday. An intensified, permanent UN-led disarmament process, containment and sustained diplomatic pressure to remove Saddam is hardly nothing.
Rather, it is the consensual, common sense and proper way forward. For sure, Bush may scorn such arguments. But others have a moral duty not to aid and abet his irresponsibility.
Like his other arguments, Blair’s “moral” case for war does not convince. It is but another excuse for the inexcusable.