Attacks on the premier and the president are ignorant and simplistic, writes William Shawcross.
The abuse that Tony Blair is receiving for his stand against Saddam Hussein is outrageous. You would never know from his more intemperate critics that the world faces a really serious dilemma. How does it best deal with the intransigence of evil, made manifest by the Iraqi dictator?
Argument and anxiety over going to war are proper and vital, but Mr Blair's opponents go way beyond debate. Churchmen line up to denounce Mr Blair (a committed Christian) as immoral, unchristian or both. The Prime Minister is attacked as President George Bush's poodle, and his alleged owner is abused as an idiot. The Independent on Sunday has published many assaults which I think are quite wrong. On Thursday night, Newsnight's invited audience treated the Prime Minister as if he had crawled out from under a stone.
The Daily Mirror recently filled an entire front page with a montage of Blair with red stained hands. BLOOD ON HIS HANDS it read. This was the cover of yet another two-page rant by John Pilger. He wrote that the Bush administration is the Third Reich of our times. He denounced Mr Blair as a liar and a coward.
Then there is Tony Benn. Before his self serving jaunt to Baghdad, Mr Benn had the temerity to declare, I will see women and children who will die in a few weeks because the Prime Minister has decided to kill them.
The odious nature of such remarks was compounded by Mr Benn's unctuous interview with Saddam Hussein. Viewers would never have guessed from Mr Benn's words or demeanour that President Saddam is a bloodstained psychopath who has oppressed and tortured his own people for decades, has invaded two neighbours and killed at least a million people.
Nor, crucially, could they have understood that for the last 12 years he has mocked the United Nations and international law by refusing to surrender the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons he is known either to have or to be seeking. Mr Benn did not blink when the tyrant told him, Every fair minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something they are trustworthy ... Iraq has no weapons of madestruction whatsoever.
The Prime Minister's critics are so certain of their rectitude that they can never even consider whether the world, as well as Iraq itself, might benefit from the strong stand taken by him and by President Bush. Mr Benn sees himself as a peacemaker, Mr Blair as a warmonger. The opposite is true.
In 1991, after Iraq was expelled from Kuwait (in the face of just such criticisms as are being made today) the Security Council passed binding resolution 687 which stressed that international peace and security could not be restored to the area unleIraq gave up all its weapons of madestruction. Over the next 12 years Saddam defied this and all subsequent resolutions. As a result sanctions, imposed by the UN until he disarmed, had to remain in place and his people have suffered greatly.
Last November, challenged by Mr Bush and Mr Blair to enforce its resolutions, the Security Council passed Resolution 1441 unanimously - an extraordinary achievement. This offered Saddam a final opportunity to disarm and warned of serious consequences if he did not.
The chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has now said that Iraq is still not disarming. Last week the US Secretary of State Colin Powell described in compelling detail the way in which the Iraqis are trying to conceal their illegal weapons. Jack Straw says there are 20,000 Iraqi counter intelligence agents working to frustrate the 110 men and women from the UN. It is quite evident that Saddam is in material breach of 1441, as he has been of 687 and other resolutions for years.
A choice has to be made. Either the world can continue to be steadfast and compel Saddam to disarm as 1441 and many other binding resolutions require. Or we can return to the path of least resistance, as proposed by the French, the Germans and others, and give the inspectors more time - much more time.
Superficially, that is the easier road to take. But consider what it would mean. The inspectors will still not be able to disarm Saddam - because disarmament can only happen if the Iraqi regime takes the lead - and it is not doing so even while faced with serious consequences. They will remain only at his pleasure. The US and British troops around Iraq's borders cannot stay indefinitely in the desert. Their departure would be a huge victory for Saddam, showing that he had outfaced not just the United States but also the United Nations.
The French and the Russians would soon argue that Saddam containment had worked, sanctions were no longer needed and normal businecould resume - particularly with French and Russian oil companies.
Saddam would proceed apace on his infernal factories for weapons of madistruction, financed by his new oil revenues. He would still murder and torture Iraqis. He would soon have nuclear devices and thus the means to terrorise the entire region. He would seek to dominate the world's oil market. He would threaten Israel. He would be untouchable. That's not all. America's friends could no longer trust the United States and its enemies would no longer be daunted by it. Chaos, radicalisation and proliferation would be the name of the new game - it is beginning already in North Korea.
The protesters demand that any action against Saddam must take place through the UN. I sympathise with that principle. But remember Slobodan Milosevic, another recalcitrant tyrant. While Europe temporised in Bosnia in the 1990s, he terrorised.
In early 2000, he ignored all warnings that he would be bombed unlehe stopped his assault upon the Kosovar Muslims. A Security Council resolution was impossible because the Russians made clear that they would veto it. None the less, Nato, led by Mr Blair and President Clinton, attacked - despite protests from Mr Benn and many of the same people also opposed to action against Iraq. As a result, the Muslims of Kosovo were liberated from ethnic cleansing by the Serbs and Milosevic later fell. Was it immoral to achieve this without a Council resolution? No.
Over 12 years we have failed in our promise to protect the Middle East by disarming Saddam. The consequences have been awful, especially for the Iraqis. Do the critics of Mr Blair and Mr Bush think that the UN should now just forget about the serious consequences threatened in Resolution 1441? If so, we can say goodbye to the United Nations as the principal forum for seeking peace and security worldwide.
The Prime Minister's critics maintain that the entire Arab world will be united against an attack on Saddam. Really? Is that why Arab governments are now desperately trying to persuade him either to accept 1441 in its entirety or to go into exile? The neighbours are longing to see the back of him. Washington has made clear it would welcome such an outcome. The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that no one wants war and there is still time for Saddam to decide to disarm.
I hope that Saddam can be disarmed or removed without war. If it does happen, Mr Bush and Mr Blair should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If there has to be war, it will cause suffering and innocent deaths. (Many innocent Iraqis who have died since 1991 would have been saved if the world had long ago compelled Saddam to obey its rules.) But the consequences of appeasing Saddam yet again risk much more death and destruction. Tony Blair told Parliament recently. The threat is real, and if we do not deal with it, the consequence of our weaknewill haunt future generations.
He is right. There are times when the use of force is essential in the pursuit of peace.
And yet marchers burn effigies of Mr Bush and Mr Blair, not Saddam. This seems to me to be a terrifying moral myopia. It is grotesque to call Mr Blair and Mr Bush criminals - the criminal is the odious despot of Baghdad.