Not one, not two, but three articles quoting from “secret” plans to invade Iraq have appeared on the front page of the New York Times in the past month. One version of events calls for 250,000 US troops to attack Iraq from three sides.
Another calls for fewer troops to invade Baghdad and topple the government. Previous “secret” plans have been discussed in the Los Angeles Times (250,000 troops, invading from Kuwait) and the Washington Post (200,000 troops, plus airstrikes) among many other public places.
If this superabundance of highly public secret information was intended to scare people, it has: this week, Saddam Hussein suddenly reversed his longstanding refusal to deal with UN weapons inspectors.
With equal abruptness, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee decided to hold hearings on the invasion of Iraq.
Not everybody is acting worried: the Bush administration firmly tells anyone who asks that there are “no plans” to invade Iraq, while reassuring everyone who matters that in any case, the invasion won’t take place before next autumn’s Congressional elections.
It is only fair to forgive outsiders – Tony Blair among them – if they are confused about what is actually happening.
Yet amid the cacophony, a few things are clear. It is clear, for example, that the apparent confusion reflects a real argument, taking place both within the administration and outside it, about what, if anything, should be done in Iraq.
And although it is too early to say for certain who will win, it is also clear that the advocates of invasion are far louder and more articulate, often because they have been making this argument for a long time.
Among them, for example, are people such as Richard Perle – a Reagan official and now an adviser to President Bush – who have long dreamed of changing the Middle East, of creating a democratic Iraq, which will then go on to destabilise the other dictatorships of the Arab world.
Among them are also people in the media, in think tanks as well as in the administration, who fear that Saddam’s nuclear and chemical arsenal will be used, if not against the United States, then against Israel (Israel, after all, was in the business of bombing Iraqi nuclear plants long before even the US thought that was acceptable).
Nowadays, the democracy-spreaders and the backers of Israel intersect both with one another, and with a larger group of people – almost certainly the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, among them – who still feel that the Gulf War ended without resolution, and that Saddam’s continued, unpunished defiance of the US and the UN has set a bad example for others, most particularly, al-Qa’eda.
Yet the support for invasion is not only about lobbies and interests. At a deeper level, the argument about Iraq reflects a larger uncertainty about the War on Terrorism itself. In fact, the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was almost too swift and too easy.
After the enormous build-up of anger, the wild flights of patriotic rhetoric, and the proliferation of American flags, the sight of John Simpson strolling into liberated Kabul was a bit of an anti-climax – particularly since Osama bin Laden appears to have been walking with equal leisure in the opposite direction at the same time.
Since then, Americans have been treated to a few stories about covert actions in the Philippines, endless revelations about the incompetence of the FBI, and the tale of a stewardess who caught a man trying to set fire to his shoes (probably because she thought he was trying to smoke a cigarette on board an aeroplane, a crime almost on par with terrorism itself) Something more substantial is wanted – but what?
Leaving aside the legitimate reasons for invading Iraq – the mounting, if still murky, evidence of Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological weapons research – such an invasion would serve an important psychological purpose.
George Bush has several times spoken of a new military doctrine, emphasising pre-emptive strikes and preventive measures, whenever America’s national security is at stake.
He has yet to put his money where his mouth is, yet to prove to the world that he means what he says: the bombardment of Afghanistan was a reaction, after all, not a pre-emptive strike. An invasion of Iraq would not only establish that he means what he says, it would satisfy the American people’s lust for blood.
In the immediate wake of September 11, more than 80 per cent of Americans supported an invasion of Iraq, even though no one then had established an unshakeable connection – or indeed any connection – between the Iraqi regime and al-Qa’eda.
More than 60 per cent of Americans still support an invasion, even though the Bush administration still has not put the case for invasion to the country.
One cannot help but think that if Osama bin Laden were right now being dragged through the streets of Manhattan, the numbers might be far lower. But he is not – and they are high.
Finally, the sense of moral purpose which has always motivated American foreign policy should never be underestimated. Those who speak of an invasion of Iraq often talk of “doing the world a favour”, of removing Saddam for everybody’s benefit, even if everybody (Europeans in particular) doesn’t immediately appreciate it.
Here, of course, is where most Europeans will lose track of the argument: “doing the world a favour” is rarely a component of European foreign policy, or any traditional foreign policy (for that matter, it bothers much of the American State Department).
Oddly enough, Tony Blair may be an exception: he might not have made up his mind yet, he might still be telling different things to the King of Jordan and the American president – as King Abdullah rather embarassingly revealed last week – but he’ll probably want to be on the side wearing white hats.
Not that it matters: the opinions of European governments, who even in theory could contribute only minimal men and weapons to an Iraqi invasion, hardly count for anything in Washington these days.
Expect President Bush to look rather to US public opinion and to the strength of the American budget. The rest is just static on the airwaves.