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LONDON — Everyone seems agreed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a very nasty piece of work, a brutal tyrant with homicidal tendencies who cannot be trusted one inch.

Everyone is also agreed that, since Iraq’s ejection from Kuwait over a decade ago, Hussein has continued to accumulate develop hideous weapons of mass destruction in total defiance of U.N. resolutions, weapons that include biological agents that kill painfully, gases that choke people to death and missiles that could carry these horrific items into all neighboring countries and as far as the eastern Mediterranean.

It is further agreed that he is on his way to building nuclear warheads, although he may not be there yet. But the intention is clear. He is, in short, a monster.

The world is obviously better rid of such people, who bring nothing but misery to all within their reach, especially, in Hussein’s case, his own unfortunate fellow-citizens whom he has gassed, murdered and oppressed in large numbers. But does this mean that he should be attacked head-on by massive military forces, and does it mean mounting such an attack right now?

U.S. President George W. Bush and his advisers have clearly had some success in convincing their fellow Americans that this is indeed the essential next move. Some hardliners in Washington want to go ahead straightaway and march on Baghdad. They also want to see the end of Hussein himself — “regime change,” as it is politely called.

Others, the majority, agree, but would like the blessing of a U.N. resolution before they act. They would also like to give one last chance to the U.N. weapons inspectors to root out and destroy Hussein’s ghastly toys, although few Americans have much faith that they will succeed. Force looks to be the only answer.

On the other side of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been trying to get over the same message. He has earned considerable credit for encouraging the Americans to take the U.N. path, and now he is trying to get both his own countrymen and the other Europeans to row in behind and back American intentions with resolve and determination.

But in doing so he is having a far tougher time than Bush. Despite having produced a most convincing dossier showing what Hussein is clearly up to, he has met a chorus of doubters both within his own ruling party, the Labour Party, and right across the political spectrum.

As for his European colleagues, they have been at sixes and sevens. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has scraped back into office by directly attacking American aims and doing enormous damage to American-German relations in the process, which could take years to repair. France has been pointing both ways and murmuring caution. The EU overall has been silenced since it has no common view to offer. The Russians have been hostile and the Chinese have remained inscrutable.

On all sides, even from the supportive, has come the question “Why now?” After all, the world has known about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and his methods, for many years. Most Middle Eastern leaders would be only too delighted to see this disturbing and threatening ruler removed for good.

But Iraq is not the only country with biological and chemical weapons capabilities — it is estimated that up to 40 other nations also have these facilities. And Iraq is not the only nation seeking nuclear weapons. Up to six countries over and above the existing big five are in the nuclear weapons business, including Iran, and, of course, North Korea, India and Pakistan.

So, comes the repeated question, why now?

Perhaps one reason is that the European leaders are not quite spelling out the whole story in the way that America’s leaders have already done.

For example, in hearings before Congress, both hawks and doves in the U.S. administration, ranging from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Vice President Dick Cheney, have been making quite clear that the Hussein problem and the wider problems of today’s fanatical terrorism are closely linked.

There may be no direct evidence of collusion between Hussein and the al-Qaeda network over the 9/11 atrocities. But there are many other terrorist groupings, and Hussein’s track record in murder and terror has been well documented — from the attempted assassination of former U.S President George H.W. Bush and the financing of Palestinian suicide bombers to direct implication in a dozen other terrorist outrages.

The clearly articulated American fear, widely shared throughout the United States, is that sooner or later, and it could be sooner, Hussein’s weapons will slip into the hands of suicidal fanatics who cannot be deterred and have no “home address” — i.e. country — to threaten in return. A catastrophe unprecedented in the history of mankind could then ensue, making Sept. 11 look mild. Millions could die. Hence the extreme urgency of dealing with Hussein before this next horror occurs. Americans feel they must act before they are acted upon, pre-empt before they are pre-empted, as they were last September.

The authorities on the European side of the Atlantic might carry more persuasion if they used the same language. But oddly the British leaders have firmly denied that any such linkage exists between Hussein and global terrorism. It is therefore not surprising that enthusiasm for early attack both in Britain and in the rest of Europe has been far more muted. They can see the problem, they can see that something must be done about Hussein, but they just cannot see the urgency.

This is very dangerous. If public opinion, both in Europe and in Japan, cannot be rallied for the prompt use of force, possibly following a tough U.N.-backed ultimatum, then the Americans will indeed attempt to go it alone, probably with disastrous consequences. Instead of a swift, legal and united international operation there would be a messy unilateral assault by America, leading to world disunity, extreme tension and recrimination, as well as to untold destabilizing consequences once the fighting was over.

European governments need to tell their citizens frankly and graphically what American leaders are telling theirs daily — that Hussein and global terrorism feed upon each other.

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