LONDON — “Where you stand depends on where you sit” goes the old political adage. And this was never more true than in the case of Iraq and what, if anything, should be done about this troublesome tyranny.
From Washington it all looks clear enough. Iraq is manufacturing hideous weapons of mass destruction; it is a friend of terrorists and therefore an enemy of the United States. Its present leadership should therefore be destroyed as soon as practicable. The war on global terrorism demands nothing less.
Move to Europe and things look a bit different. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an evil man — all are agreed about that. But is it wise, the Europeans ask, to attack him head on or corner him? Will this not just unite all Arabs still more strongly against the West, when the whole area is already paralyzed by the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
Move again to the Middle East and there this way of thinking looks crazy. Hussein may be bad but America, so Arab leaders seem to believe, is much worse. An attack on Iraq would get no local support and would create turmoil in the Persian Gulf region. The Saudis do not want to provide the bases for any such attack; the prosperous Arabs crowding back into a resurgent Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, do not want to have their lifestyle disturbed; the Jordanians, right next to Iraq, are terrified, and even little Kuwait, which has bitter experience of being under the Iraqi heel, counsels extreme caution and would rather talk with its former oppressor than fight it.
And to add to the labyrinthine perversity of the Middle East, the Iranians, although not Arabs, appear to be ready to support Iraq against attack, even though they waged an all-out and costly war with that same country only 15 years ago.
Then there are the Kurds, who might be expected to be totally hostile to Hussein and eager to see him removed from power. After all, their people have been harassed, gassed and massacred by Baghdad forces, and only the U.S.- and British-administered no-fly zone protects them from renewed assault now.
But even these people are reluctant to see Hussein taken on, and highly reluctant to be pushed to the forefront in any battles with him. They remember bitterly the experiences of 10 years ago, when they were encouraged by outside voices to rise up against him, only to find themselves deserted and crushed. Besides, with the United Nations diverting about 13 percent of the earnings from “permitted” sales of Iraqi crude oil to the Kurds, life is pretty comfortable for the moment and they do not want it upset.
Completing the circle of unease is Turkey, which fears that the collapse of the neighboring Hussein regime might lead to the disintegration of Iraq and the unstoppable rise of violent Kurdish nationalism within its own borders.
As for Asia, and the big industrial nations like Japan, which import a large amount of their oil from the Persian Gulf, they can only hold their breath and hope that major military operations against Iraq — which would, of course, send the oil price soaring again — can somehow be avoided.
All in all, the proposition that Hussein must be “taken out” has few friends round the globe. The position of Britain is particularly awkward.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been America’s strongest ally in Europe and has supported U.S. President George W. Bush at every stage in the unfolding war against terror. He shares the view that Hussein is developing nuclear and biological weapons, and the missiles to deliver them. If the Iraqis continue to hide these developments, and refuse entry to the U.N. inspectors, as they have again done in the last few days, he would probably agree to back an American-led assault of some kind.
Unfortunately, many of his supporters in the ruling Labour Party would not. He is said to have privately conceded that if Britain backs a U.S invasion of Iraq he would lose more than 50 Labour members of Parliament, who might go off and form a breakaway group. With an enormous majority in the House of Commons he could probably survive that, especially if the Conservatives, the main opposition party, supported him, as they would.
But the outcome would mean substantial political turmoil in Westminster at a time when the fortunes of the Labour administration are beginning to ebb anyway against a background of rising economic uncertainty and investment gloom.
For the time being, the British government takes comfort from the fact that the issue does not seem immediate and there are no imminent plans for an Iraqi assault.
But that situation could change any day. The Pentagon appears to be grinding ahead with elaborate schemes for mounting a vast invasion of Iraq from the north, south and west. This would need large staging posts and airfields in Kuwait and Turkey. Alternative plans, such as sending in CIA agents to assassinate Hussein, saturating his nuclear plants and laboratories with missiles or somehow promoting internal uprisings in Iraq circulate briskly in Washington policy circles.
All in all, the question of “what to do about Iraq” is at the top of the agenda and is going to stay there.
Presumably, Hussein must wake each morning hoping that with all the differing standpoints and interests no one will ever agree on the right action to be taken, if any.
But he could be wrong, and that is an uncertainty with which both he, and the rest of the world, will now have to live.
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