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Realities of isolationism

BILL KIRKMAN

IN any war in Iraq, those most affected will be the people of that country themselves. It is worth re-stating that obvious point, because it is easy to forget it in all the talk about the implications for others. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the essential justification for such a war could be that it brought long-term peace and freedom from terrorism.

It is of course arguable that even such a result, if achieved, would not justify an attack on Iraq, but we do accept that case for justification, the rapidly unfolding events of the past few weeks have reminded us how much is at stake for the major players in the drama. The first issue with this hypothesis, clearly, is whether an attack would in fact be likely to achieve the desired results. Would it ensure an end to terrorism? Would it bring political stability to Iraq and its West Asian neighbours? Would it ensure for the people of Iraq a more benign regime?

It is not necessary to be a professional pessimist to conclude that there are serious doubts about what might be achieved by military action.

The political fallout has to be measured against the background of such doubts. Within the United Kingdom, for instance, opposition to the policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair has reached a crescendo. Among the public at large, hostility to the war has been growing. Within the ranks of the Labour Party the same is true. Even within the Cabinet it has become clear that ministers are not all speaking with the same voice — as witness the widely publicised criticisms of the Prime Minister by Clare Short, one of his cabinet ministers.

Within the European Union there are bitter divisions. France has made its opposition loudly known, and its willingness to veto a new U.N. resolution. The United Nations itself is manifestly divided.

International lawyers are not unanimous, but many of them are questioning the legality of an attack on Iraq.

Do these divisions and disagreements matter?

It has seemed to be the view of the United States that in the last analysis they do not. The American dismissal of France and Germany as "old" Europe was one indication. The fact that within the E.U. itself there is no common view about many important issues might be seen to lend support to the argument that what the E.U. says does not really matter.

As to the U.N. if the U.S. decides to attack, it does not, militarily, need the agreement of the international body. The U.K. could decide that its interests would be better served by retaining the "special relationship" with the U.S. than by worrying, in the last resort, about wider international approval.

However tempting such arguments may be to some, it is surely extremely unwise to ignore the realities of isolationism. Being hated and despised is not a good basis for succeeding in the modern world. It is not a good basis economically.

It is not a guarantee against terrorist attack. From the U.K.'s point of view, isolation from the rest of Europe is simply not a practical possibility. Nor is such isolation conducive to taking the moral high ground: "We believe in the restraints of civilised international behaviour except when they tie our hands" may be caricature of the American position, but it is a caricature which many people, fairly or unfairly, believe to be accurate.

Such critical scrutiny of President Bush's attitudes has not been widespread in the U.S. but it has not been absent. It was strongly evident, for example, in a recent speech by Christ Van Hollen, Member of the House of Representatives, to the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. The subject was "The Bush foreign policy: will it make us more or less secure?"

Here are some of his key statements: "The Administration's approach to Iraq and the arrogance with which it has pursued its goals has badly damaged our ability to get the cooperation we need from others to protect our security interests and wage our long-term fight against terrorism." Then: "It is both wrong and unwise to think we do not need the rest of the international community in this and other areas of common threat." More on these lines, and then: "American's moral standing — our greatest source of strength — has been diminished."

It is not necessary to feel any support for Saddam Hussein, who is clearly an obnoxious tyrant, to appreciate the force of those views.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at wpk1000@hotmail.com

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