This war began with a dream of what war might be. There was no terrible, defining moment of commencement, when the promised shock and awe was visited upon the people of Iraq, no implacable display of technology, wealth and power. Instead there was a demure, unscheduled attempt, in response to an intelligence tip-off, to assassinate Saddam Hussein and his closest circle, and bring an end to battle before it had started.
If there had to be a start at all, that was a good one, and a shrewd one too, when this war is so unpopular. The whole world is dreaming that the war can be something like this, with all aggression centred only on the dictator himself, as ground troops process through the country, graciously accepting the enthusiastic surrender of a grateful nation. Yet even as all who abhor this war hope feverishly that it can somehow turn out to be relatively benign, the layers of paradox involved in such a perfect deliverance would be cruel.
This is not merely because those who are against war sometimes find themselves in the grotesque position where every new disaster and outrage, every piece of suffering and pain, is a terrible vindication of their own trepidation and concern. Even pacifists, at times, find a bitter satisfaction in being able to say "I told you so".
Anyway, a brief, contained war, will offer far more justification for those against it, but without the human cost becoming unbearably high. A brief, contained war will almost certainly mean that it had all been for next-to-nothing - with Saddam a spent force all along, hoarding no weapons of mass destruction, controlling no loyal supporters and with only the prospect of a final, successful coup between him and his end.
The political implications of this kind of almost effortless victory would be interesting, just as they will be interesting if the worst- rather than the best-case scenario comes to pass. but however this war progresses, the sight of liberated Iraqis, merrily signed up to the coalition of the willing, will go a long way towards neutralising wisdom-of-hindsight anger.
The paradox lies in a much more awkward direction, and it is the same sort of paradox that has persuaded Clare Short to stay in the Cabinet. It is, bizarrely, that in a world where the US seems determined to exercise its power, even if it has to do so alone, the rest of us must be just as determined to share and shoulder responsibility for the aftermath, however tempting it may be for the international community to let the allies clear up their own mess.
Power without responsibility is conventionally and rightly considered to be a dreadful and dangerous thing. But what option do we really have, in the case of America, except to effect some kind of separation between this usually desirable pair? The world is now in a perilous situation, because we have learned that there is little we can do to check US power. So we must accept that the only way in which we can save the US from the awful reality that lurks behind its own dream of painless hegemony, is to take the lead in mending the damage.
Certainly, the situation in Afghanistan offers no fabulous blueprint. More must be done there to help the population, even as we brace ourselves to go to the aid of another country that has felt the horror of US wrath. In Afghanistan, though, the task of dropping aid into an ocean of sorrowful contradiction and internecine aggression can seem overwhelming. …