INSIDE OUT - The Spectator wonders why we don't just assassinate Saddam. This simplistic line shows how our debate on Iraq is trailing that of the US.

by ANDREW NEIL, publisher of The Business and The Scotsman
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Spectator wonders why we don't just assassinate Saddam. This simplistic line shows how our debate on Iraq is trailing that of the US.

Towards the end of last year,, America's most popular online magazine, published a lengthy essay on how the US turned Japan into a prosperous democracy after the end of world war two. It explained how a militaristic imperial power was transformed into a placid parliamentary nation with, by the early 1950s, a progressive education system, a bill of rights four times longer than the one in the US constitution and a distribution of wealth more equal than America's.

In January the New York Times revealed the Bush administration's plans for democratising a post-Saddam Iraq, describing it as 'the most ambitious American effort to administer a country since the end of world war two'.

The depth and extent of debate about Iraq in the US is in contrast to the superficial one taking place in Britain. A typical example: the Spectator recently ran a cover story asking why we don't just assassinate Saddam.

Its simplistic solution illustrates how our thinking is being left behind by what is being considered in the US.

Bush's administration shed the vestiges of Cold War foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. During the struggle with the Soviet Union, the US supported dictatorships as long as they were bulwarks against communism. As one American president memorably put it: 'They may be sons of bitches but at least they're our sons of bitches.'

Those days are gone. The aim in Washington is not to topple Saddam only to replace him with a strong man more amenable to US interests. It is to transform Iraq. American officials talk about a prolonged commitment to the country after liberation: administrators would be appointed to work with Iraqis untainted by association with the old regime to run the economy, rebuild the schools, create new political institutions and engender a new respect for civil rights.

British critics often say the Americans want Iraq for its oil, and to some extent they are right - but not in the selfish way they think. The US plan is to seize the oilfields to avoid their destruction and restart production immediately after military action. The idea is that oil revenues would help pay for the huge cost of rebuilding Iraq.

At the moment, Iraq pumps out about two million barrels of oil per day (bpd). It is meant to be part of the UN's 'food for oil' programme. But most of the revenues end up in the pockets of Saddam. The aim will be to expand production as quickly as possible to closer to eight million bpd after liberation. This will depress oil prices and bring substantial benefits to the world economy. But it will also generate revenues that will be used to benefit the Iraqi people.

As peaceniks and those in favour of military intervention continue to bicker in Britain, the Bush administration has secretly mounted a huge historical study of America's past successes and failures in nation-building, going as far back as the US administration of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th century and the occupation of Japan and Germany in 1945. Nothing like this has been discussed in Britain, publicly or privately.

The events of 11 September revolutionised US thinking. Bush came to power opposed to the very concept of using the US military for nation-building.

Now he is contemplating a long-term military commitment to Iraq as its institutions and economy are rebuilt.

Russia, which is not enthusiastic about an American invasion, has nevertheless been squared by the prospect of getting some of the dollars 6 billion in outstanding oil revenues it is owed by Baghdad. American businesses are contemplating the lucrative contracts that will become available as a nation of 22 million people is rebuilt. British business should be gearing up to take advantage too: as America's main ally in any war, our companies would be looked upon favourably.

It is, of course, an enormously ambitious, even idealistic project, fraught with difficulties. There is the fractious nature of the Iraqi opposition; the tendency of Iraq's neighbours to meddle in its affairs; and the hostility of the Arab world to an American Caesar in Iraq, no matter how well-intentioned.

It could easily end in tears.

The irony is that those on the Left most opposed to US action are those most in favour of democracy and human rights. Yet when there is the chance to rid the world of one of its most brutal dictatorships they prefer to sit on their hands.

British opinion is stuck in a time-warp. The conventional wisdom on the Left (and even among some Tories) is that the US should do nothing about Iraq until it has helped resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US used to think that too.

Now it looks at the array of Arab dictatorships and concludes that there can be no progress in the Middle East until there is an outbreak of democracy there and the market economy takes root. It aims to start with Iraq.

Idealism indeed - just the sort in which the British Left used to take pride.

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