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TALK ABOUT MOTIVE

Bring enough cynicism to the task, and you can usually figure out some rational (though often shameful) motive for almost any policy advocated by a politician. In the case of George W. Bush’s policy of bringing about a “regime change” in Iraq, however, it does not work. Try as you may, you cannot see how he, his party, or the United States of America stand to benefit from it.

Bush now has congressional authority to “use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq”. It is the first time a US president has been given such a blank cheque since Lyndon Johnson faked a North Vietnamese attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to get congress to authorize committing US forces to the Vietnam war.

Yet there is no “continuing threat posed by Iraq”, or at least no threat bigger than it was a year ago, when George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote dismissively in his post-September 11 report to Congress: “We believe that Iraq has probably continued at least low-level theoretical R&D associated with its nuclear programme. A sufficient source of fissile material remains its most significant obstacle to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.”

No threat

Since then the CIA has produced no new evidence to contradict that conclusion, for all of Bush’s super-heated rhetoric about a “mushroom cloud” threatening America. Other friendly intelligence services from Britain to Russia concur that Saddam Hussein has no nuclear weapons, and probably few usable chemical or biological weapons either. Neither is there any convincing evidence connecting Iraq with terrorist attacks on American targets. So why does Bush want this war'

This is where cynicism should help us find the answer, but it doesn’t. All the various (and mostly discreditable) reasons that are suggested for Bush’s obsessive focus on Iraq fail to hold water when examined closely.

There is the “displacement activity” argument: that the Bush administration shifted the focus from al Qaida to Iraq last January because it had failed to catch or kill Osama bin Laden, and needed a new target with a fixed address to distract American public opinion from that failure.

But in fact most Americans were content with the overthrow of Afghanistan’s taliban government and the destruction of al Qaida’s training camps there. There was no great public outcry for bin Laden’s head on a stick.

Diversion tactics

Then there is the electoral hypothesis: that whipping up a war fever over Iraq has kept Bush’s personal popularity high, and may help Republicans in this month’s congressional elections by diverting public attention from vote-losing issues like the recession and corporate corruption. But mere war fever, without any actual war at the end of it, would serve these purposes just as well. Yet Bush does not appear to be bluffing.

Maybe Bush is just bluffing to frighten Hussein into letting United Nations arms inspectors back into Iraq, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it. Maybe it’s about demonstrating to the world that nobody gets away with defying the sole hyperpower and its ambitious plans for “full-spectrum dominance”. Maybe it’s just that the Bush family and Hussein have been enemies for a long time, and Bush now thinks he can finish it.

To make sense of Bush’s policy, you must first assume that he believes that a war with Iraq would be quickly won, produce few US casualties, and leave US interests elsewhere in the region undamaged. (Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan all fitted that pattern, so if you squeeze your eyes tight shut you might believe that Iraq will conform to it too.)

If Bush does believe that, then he doesn’t need truly serious motives for attacking Iraq. The fragmentary, lightweight ones listed above are enough, because for the US the war would be a cheap and painless exercise. It is noteworthy, however, that the actual soldiers in the Pentagon mostly don’t share that view.

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