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Conflict, concern and questions


Pointing out the progress of the war.

ON a visit to India when the attack came on Iraq, I found that everyone I met was deeply concerned about both its justification and its likely effectiveness. When I returned to the United Kingdom a few days later, the same concerns were apparent.

I cannot claim, of course, that there is no one willing to justify the attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but I have so far not met such a person. Few people have a good word to say for Saddam Hussein or his treatment of the people of Iraq, but moving from that position to believing that the war on Iraq is either justified, or likely to achieve positive results, is quite another matter.

Among people to whom I have spoken there is great concern about the deaths and the destruction which the war on Iraq is causing. There is great concern about its likely effect on stability in the Arab world, and on relations between the Arab world and the U.K., as a close ally in this matter of the United States. And, it must be recognised, there is great scepticism about both the judgment and the motives of the U.S. Someone who had just returned from a visit to Sudan, for example, reported that in that country there was suspicion of the U.S.'s motives: "We have oil; shall we be next?"

This does not, of course, represent a well researched attitude survey. That some people in the U.K. are thinking in this way, however, does reflect the fact that so far as I can see there is no apparent general feeling that the war against Saddam Hussein is a war of just cause. Interestingly, there is no sympathy or support for what Saddam Hussein stands for — or none that I have been able to discern.

The question that people are asking is whether the campaign against him is justifiable, or likely to be effective. The longer it continues, the more significant that question becomes.

The longer the campaign continues, also, the more people are affected by the dreadful realities of war, and the more these realities are likely to overlay any sense of higher political purpose that might be adduced as a justification for the conflict. Already it has continued for longer than some people thought likely. The first week of conflict clearly failed to set off the internal opposition to Saddam Hussein that some believed to be just below the political surface.

One factor which inevitably affects attitudes is the nature of the coverage of the war, particularly on television. To a greater extent than in any previous conflict, it is being brought into everyone's home. That in itself raises a variety of questions, as the BBC recognises in the latest issue of Ariel, its house journal. "As the BBC's correspondents dodge the gunfire to file ever more startling reports from the battlefields of Iraq, their managers in London are facing up to an array of ethical questions", Ariel reports. The journal quotes Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news, on the complex issues that are emerging "mostly to do with taste, decency and impartiality".

Such coverage may, of course, eventually produce a kind of familiarity that becomes a detachment from reality. More probably, I believe, it will bring home to people the awful reality of war, and make it impossible to conceal it in the clinical detachment of military phraseology. Already we have seen bodies being flown back to the U.K., killed by "friendly fire". We have also read detailed reports of the appalling experiences of people living, and losing loved ones, under attack in Iraq. These are the realities which are not concealed by such phrases as "collateral damage".

The doubts about the rightness of the war against Saddam Hussein, and Britain's participation in it, have been strengthened by a call by Robin Cook, the former senior minister who resigned from Tony Blair's government, because of the decision to go to war, to pull British troops out.

As I try to make my own assessment of the situation, I ask four questions. One: was it right for the U.S. to override, or ignore, the United Nations? Two: was it sensible for the U.K. to support that decision? Three: is that action, right or wrong, likely to bring greater stability to West Asia? My answer to all of these questions is, regretfully, no. The fourth question is: will British interests and reputation be damaged? My answer, with similar regret, is yes.

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

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