What's most terrifying about the coming attack on Iraq is not the fact that it's happening at all. The ideological case for forcing Saddam Hussein out of power is a strong one. Of all the evil leaders cavorting on the world stage, Saddam is one of the worst. It's hard to find even a neutral thing to say about him. If you don't believe me, ask a Kurd or an Iraqi who survives in exile. This is the man-don't forget-who has invaded two of his neighbours and used poison gas against his own people. Iraq would be a better place without him. So would West Asia and the rest of the world. Anyone who doesn't believe that is either blind or gets envelopes of oil money from the nearest Iraqi embassy.
No, it's not the fact of the war that's making so many people uncomfortable around the world. It's the sheer political and diplomatic incompetence on display in Washington, almost since the day that the Bush II administration was sworn in. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who's been among those most loudly blowing war trumpets, has confessed that even he feels great unease at the solid opposition to war shown by America's once-staunch friends like Germany, and by the people on the streets of the world last month. Friedman blames the Bush White House, citing its immense disregard for the feelings of others outside the United States, and points out that much of the support for America shown after 11 September has been squandered, or at very least, not taken advantage of.
Friedman-and I quote him here because he is no peacenik or visceral opponent of war as a matter of principal-finds a dozen areas where the Bush administration has shown contempt for international feelings. Scrapping the Kyoto accord, failing to fund energy conservation in the United States, spurning the International Court of Justice, riding roughshod over Russian objections to Donald Rumsfeld's long-cherished dream of space-based missile defence, Friedman lists all of these. He also questions the financial acumen of a presidency that both cuts taxes and hugely inflates military and security spending, driving a once buoyant and prudently run economy into deficits for the foreseeable future. Friedman concludes that he still favours an attack on Iraq, but he worries deeply about its aftermath and the damage done to international relations.
Well, yes, perhaps. But there's also a strong possibility that things could be much worse. Has anyone asked an American official how an all-out assault on a weak, economically devastated Iraq is going to play in the "war against terror"? More excuses for al-Qaeda and its clones, I dare say. Has anyone checked the opinions of Iraqi opposition groups lately? They're overjoyed that America may be about to get rid of the hated Saddam Hussein, but they don't want American troops remaining on their soil for any longer than the task takes.
Ahmed Chhalbi, the likely leader of a post-Saddam Iraq, has written as much in The Wall Street Journal. Then there's the Turkish parliament's vote against allowing American troops to use Turkey's military bases. And don't forget those leaders who are supporting George W Bush, men like Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Australia's John Howard. All three have never been so unpopular with their electorates, again not because of opposition to war per se, but because the Spanish, British and Australian public despise and distrust President Bush and his nest of hawks. Again, it's because the administration's inner core-excepting perhaps Colin Powell-is seen as incompetent and ill-suited to the complexities of imperial diplomacy and global leadership.
America can rid the world of Saddam Hussein, with a small amount of help from a few other countries. That's not in question. But how much damage will be done to international diplomatic currents, the already battered image of Washington and the West, and the global economy? These are questions that remain unanswered and that amounts to uncertainty that should have been settled months before war was ever a serious option. We are about to live in even more interesting times.