Can an action that is, on balance, wrong-waging war on Iraq-be retrospectively justified by its effects? To put it another way, what are the minimum criteria for success if we are to save the western system in something like its present form and the political skin of a decent British prime minister? Low casualties, no disaster with the Kurds, no terrorist outrages and a reasonably popular post-Saddam regime with a western commitment to nation building, preferably co-ordinated by the UN; these would suffice. This would achieve both the “demonstration effect” to other potential Saddams-the US administration’s main, if obliquely stated, objective-and Blair’s humanitarian goals.
There are less rosy scenarios, all starting with more serious casualties than those to which western publics have become accustomed in recent small wars (although if these deaths result from the use of chemical or biological weapons, it will be a grim ex post facto justification for intervention). But even assuming the benign outcome above, there are no grounds for believing it will trigger a settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict or a rolling tide of democratisation through the region. These two are mutually dependent-as some of the contributors to our middle east democracy symposium argue-but many, many years away. The best analogy with the Arab world in 2003 may be Latin America in the 1870s-a postcolonial mishmash of military regimes and monarchies sharing a common culture, language and religion, but not a common political identity.
Michael Lind, discussing the “Texanisation” of US politics, argues that the current conflict within the west is not America vs Europe, it is the south and west of America vs the northeast, midwest and much of the west coast plus Europe. No one knows how persistent Texanisation will prove. But Charles Grant, in our debate between London and Paris on how to handle the new America, may be right to argue that Iraq is a one-off. Recent weeks have shown the folly of the main powers resorting to the UN without prior agreement. Tony Blair will think hard before again following a US administration that has proved so inept at public diplomacy. And, above all, US voters, focusing on jobs and incomes, will act as a restraint on unilateral international adventures unless stirred by a new terror outrage.