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EVEN as the US led war against Iraq seems depressingly close, public opinion about its morality and legality remains sharply divided. Despite the well-orchestrated campaign by the Bush administration, including the highly-publicised presentation by Colin Powell before the UN Security Council, barring Tony Blair and now the Australian PM, there are few takers for the American case, definitely not that the threatened intervention is for the advancement of human rights and democracy.

It is hardly that the detractors see Saddam Hussein as a ‘good guy’ – a nationalist hero valiantly battling against US hegemonism. Few buy that he or his regime is democratic, even less an upholder of liberal, democratic values. There is widespread suspicion, probably well-founded, of his regime’s support to various terrorist outfits. But equally, few see him as a religious fundamentalist. Iraq and Libya, the other bete-noire have been, among all Arab states, in the forefront of the struggle to enlarge public space for women.

Equally evident is the fact that Iraq, even under Saddam Hussein, hardly constitutes a threat to world, even regional, peace. A long war with Iran, defeat in Gulf War I, post its mistaken effort to usurp Kuwait, and a decade of crippling sanctions has left it battered, hardly in a position to act as a frontline state against global stability, even the American way of life. So why the desire to wage war?

Is it that the real text of the war is control of Iraq’s oil resources, a suspicion that gains strength given the links of the US administration to the oil lobby? Or is it that Iraq represents the first of many moves to dramatically restructure the Middle East, eventually extending the scope to even Saudi Arabia? Surely it could not only be George W. Bush wanting to finish his father’s unfulfilled mission of 1992?

In a prescient article, C. Raja Mohan of The Hindu pointed to the rare coincidence of the will to power with the ability to reshape the world in the context of the current US administration. Add to this a missionary zeal, an uncomplicated belief in the righteousness of one’s chosen cause. It is this, above all, that makes the current situation so dangerous.

What if the US, with or without UN sanction, and despite the reservation of many of the other powers, actually goes ahead with Iraq. Even if everything unfolds as per its plans and the Iraqi regime capitulates swiftly, will that be the end of the conflict? Not only is the task of rebuilding Iraq and its institutions daunting, fraught with uncertainty, neighbouring regimes will remain apprehensive about their own future. Also, no one, most of all other contending powers, can remain unconcerned about the implications of untrammelled US dominance.

But what if, as is more likely, the conflict turns messy with incalculable loss of civilian life, a decimation of Iraqi civic and petroleum infrastructure? What if it leads to instability in the region with the war providing proof of the insidious Huntington thesis? Are the US, and those willing to support its venture, ready to face the consequences? More aptly, should we, and the rest of the world, stand by and watch a possible tragedy unfold?

Much has been written both about Iraq’s questionable human rights record and its unwillingness to cooperate with global opinion, as reflected in various UN resolutions. But, even if one downplays the inviolability of national sovereignty, it is hardly the case that Iraq is the first, or only, violator of UN resolutions. The record of the United States, as also its principal ally in the region, Israel, is standing testimony to this disregard.

Unfortunately, the US has gone too far down the war path to back down now. If it does it faces the real danger of losing face, unacceptable when perceptions are as important as facts in governing international power relations. That is why even if Saddam can be persuaded to step down and seek exile, the effort to restructure the country, and the region, is unlikely to end.

It is this unmentioned fear of the world being irretrievably altered by those who have the power and the will to exercise that power, seeking to redefine extant rules of the game, that lies at the heart of the current unease. The fact that many countries, including the US, have witnessed massive anti-war demonstrations adds little assurance that sanity will prevail.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote that real life rarely presents neat choices. Rather, it involves exercising uncertain means to uncertain ends. With both good and evil so persistently meshed in shades of grey there should be little surprise that public opinion remains so deeply confused. The forthcoming war with Iraq has only one certain outcome – that our world will never be the same again.

Harsh Sethi