The only option

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 1998, 12:00am

For seven years, the international community has relied on a complex system of inspections by United Nations teams to track down and eradicate the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that threaten the Middle East and put at risk the oil supplies on which Asia and the whole world are so dependent.

Had that programme been working, no one disputes that such on-site access to sensitive Iraqi installations would have been the best way of tracing and destroying these biological and chemical weapons, which have the potential to kill many millions. But it long ago become clear from the months, if not years, of repeated obstructions that President Saddam Hussein's regime has no intention of allowing the UN teams to do their work without interference.

Diplomacy clearly has failed, despite repeated efforts to go the extra mile and beyond in giving the negotiated approach every possible opportunity to resolve this problem. This is demonstrated by the number of occasions on which previous threats of military action were aborted, often at the last moment. That explains yesterday's unexpectedly even-handed reaction by both France and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, milder than their previous strenuous opposition to any air strikes.

Those that did voice strong objections, notably China and Russia, did so primarily for strategic reasons concerning relations with the US and their own view of how international disputes should be resolved, rather than because they have any better ideas about how to handle Iraq. That does not mean the path which the US, with Britain's assistance, has now embarked upon is an attractive one.

Suspicions Suspicions that President Bill Clinton ordered these air strikes at least partly in order to distract attention from the impending impeachment vote are inevitable. But, at least on this occasion, they are probably misplaced since the Republicans have made it clear they are not prepared to delay the vote for more than a few days and it seems unlikely this action will have any effect on its outcome.

A more serious concern is what long-term strategy the US, preferably with the support of the international community, intends to pursue now that these bombing raids have, to all intents and purposes, brought the UN weapons inspection programme to an end. Even if these air strikes wipe out the last traces of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons, there is nothing that can be done about the scores of scientists who retain the ability to manufacture further supplies of such poisons, in many cases using common household chemicals.

Support That means the action will only serve a useful purpose if it succeeds in wiping out Baghdad's warplanes, missiles and other delivery systems, so ensuring that even if Iraq rebuilds its deadly weapons, it has no effective means of delivering them. It also means this campaign will have to be sustained long beyond the few days Pentagon planners have so far suggested, and will almost certainly require a sizeable US military presence in the Middle-East for several years.

This will be costly, both in financial terms and in respect of continuing international criticism. Sooner or later, the renewed pressure on Iraq, and the resulting misery for its population, may achieve the desired result of encouraging them to overthrow Saddam. In that case, the whole world, including those who opposed these air strikes, will doubtless breathe a sigh of relief. But, having already waited seven years for this to happen, it would be wrong to lay odds on it occurring any time soon.

Until then, the US and British strategy must now be to keep Saddam in a box, using repeated military action to weaken his grip and ensure that Iraq is in no position to threaten its neighbours. That is not a particularly attractive policy to pursue. But it is better than a discredited system of UN weapons inspections that has been repeatedly proved to be such a failure.

As the only realistic option left for the international community to pursue, it deserves more support than was evident yesterday from Asia and a world so reliant on a continuing oil supply from the Middle-East which that air strikes will help to protect.