Slate Uk

Give It Its Right Name

World War III has begun.

World War III has already begun. It may not feel like a world war, but nor did August 1914 feel much like the beginning of World War I. We tend not to regard a world war as a proper one until it feels worse than its predecessor, and World War III may not be worse than World War II. Yet George Bush’s war on terrorism and the “axis of evil” is certainly global in scope. (An article recently published by Commentary, the arch-conservative American magazine, says that in fact this is World IV: World War III was the Cold War.) It is a war that will be fought all over the globe by the world’s only superpower. Even those who oppose Bush’s aims refuse to grasp that this is what a war against evil amounts to.

Unlike its predecessors, and unlike the wars and confrontations of the Cold War, World War III pits the United States and whatever European allies it can muster against any nation that harbours international terrorism or any regime that threatens to develop weapons of mass destruction, if they haven’t done so already. Compared to the United States, neither Iraq nor North Korea are powerful. But confronted by America’s military might, no country on the planet is very powerful. One American naval battle group is probably more powerful than Britain’s armed forces combined. In military terms, Britain is little more than a chauffeur, prepared to help drive America around the world but unable to fight. And good as this country is at peace-keeping operations, it must first have a peace to protect, and only America can provide that.

The first phase of World War III in Afghanistan is apparently almost over. Phases 2 and 3, the elimination of terrorist networks in Yemen, the Philippines, and Somalia, and the destruction of regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s, are in various stages of preparation. In an interview with The Financial Times, Colin Powell said that a war with Iraq is “not imminent” and “there are no war plans on the president’s desk”. But, he added, the US is convinced “that Iraq would be better served with a different leadership”, and that the administration has “no doubt” about Saddam Hussein’s willingness to resort to chemical and biological missiles.

Contradicting Powell’s remarks is a Guardian report claiming that the US has plans to invade Iraq with 200,000 troops later this year. The attack will be launched from Kuwait, and these troops will presumably be exposed to the horrible chemical and biological weapons that Powell believes Saddam Hussein is prepared to use. As he did in 1991, Saddam Hussein may try to escalate the conflagration by launching Scud missiles on Israel, and in this war perhaps these missiles will be tipped with the anthrax or nerve agent that he didn’t use in 1991. It seems unlikely that the US can persuade Israel not to retaliate against these attacks.

Death and destruction in World War III will not reach the scale of World Wars I or II, although the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq in 2002 won’t be as easy as the battle fought in the desert in 1991 to expel him from Kuwait. Yet if all the aims of Bush’s war are to be met, there will be much carnage before it’s over. North Korea will put up a good fight, as well as Iraq, and may also choose to attack a neighbouring country with its weapons of mass destruction.

Before cruise missiles shower down on Baghdad and before US Rangers and Delta Force troops swarm through the streets of African and Middle Eastern capitals, as they did in Mogadishu in 1993, it would be better to declare what this war really is. Only by calling this war by its true name can the US properly consider whether this is the war it wants to fight. And only by recognizing this is as World War III can America’s allies consider whether they have the stomach to join the battle.