Hard News by Russell Brown

The Empire Strikes

When United Nations inspectors left Iraq in 1998, they did so because Saddam's regime was not co-operating on access to certain sites, including presidential palaces, and because of the fear of consequent US and British airstrikes.

This week, the inspectors will leave, even though they have unfettered working access to the palaces and other sites, because Iraq will soon be subject to an unprecedented military assault from US and British forces.

So the Americans have their war. It is clear now, if it wasn't before, that it's not really about the weapons, at least in so far as allowing the inspectors to do their jobs is concerned. The French, however murky their deeper motives, are quite right: the inspections had not finished, the inspectors wished to continue, disarmament, however grudging, was taking place.

But it's not about the French either, however convenient a scapegoat they might be. It is simply that the US has not only failed to make a moral case for war to its fellow members of the Security Council, it hasn't even been able to get the swinging nations into line by threatening or bribing them. And it's no use complaining about the promised veto either: the US essentially established that system and has fully expected its own vetoes to be honoured for the last five decades.

The stark truth is that almost no one is convinced by the American case for war now. Those few world leaders to publicly endorse it have done so in the face of huge opposition from their own people - and, in Tony Blair's case, a party rebellion and potentially fatal political damage.

This is not surprising. It defied reason to implement an inspections process then kill it because it began to bear fruit. The Americans did not seek the counsel of other nations; merely a pretext for war to satisfy a decade-old doctrinaire plan for US strategic dominance.

They lied and dissembled as much the evil man they want to unseat - using forged documents, repeating claims already dismissed by inspectors, waving satellite photographs of trucks that proved to carry nothing more than food.

The idea that Resolution 1441 explicitly authorises war is a convenient fantasy - would the naysayers have voted for it in the first place if they believed it did?

But still they have their war, at the cost of destabilising the United Nations, the European Union, Nato, the Arab League, Nafta (dimwit US congressmen are already blustering about retaliatory trade sanctions against Mexico and Chile) and the political future of their closest ally. I wouldn't put money on a successful WTO round any time soon, either.

And, of course, the next Stalinist toyboy (sorry, US "ally") in Uzbekistan has moved on from fixing elections and torturing and killing his citizens to threatening his neighbours. But, hey, he's a good guy, for now.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda is already on a recruiting drive and the US economy is sliding down the toilet. Bush and his chums have already committed their citizens to 10 years of fiscal deficits. And that official figure, unbelievably, doesn't count the cost of war.

In a way, it's the global incompetence, the bone-headed arrogance and stupidity, that annoy me most about this. With even a little genuine diplomacy - or leadership - they could probably have achieved most of what they set out to do. Instead, they showed contempt, and it was not always veiled.

The war probably won't take long - US military leadership is, fortunately, vastly more competent than its political leadership - but it will be nasty. It will be interesting to see whether the US media, which has finally shown signs of waking up, will play along when innocent civilians are killed, as they inevitably will be.

I think Norman Mailer's right: Bush and the neoconservatives behind him are seeking to turn American into a mega-banana republic, and it is worrying in the extreme.

Still, there has been some stout stuff written this week, notably by economist Paul Krugman, who vented admirably in the New York Times about the stupidity and arrogance of his leaders. Fareed Zakaria's backgrounder for Newsweek covers similar ground at greater length and today's New Zealand Herald editorial is justifiably angry in tone. A wealth of other writing about the Bush administration's appalling behaviour at home and abroad is collected at the excellent Crisis Papers.

Meanwhile, deluded millennium-fanciers can also chew on disease and apocalyptic prophecy from a dead fish. The plague of locusts must surely be only just around the corner. What a wonderful world.