M AY you live in interesting times runs the old Chinese curse, and even Confucius might call the past few days interesting. Hans Blix didn't find a smoking gun in Iraq, but the Israeli elections resulted in a smoking gun that all but defeathered the Dove of Peace, and Dubyah's State of the Union message confirmed what many feared, that he's got his soontobesmoking sixguns halfway out of the holster. There's nothing scarier than a True Believer with the power to carry out his agenda. Read the markets. The smart money knows that there will be military action. I can't see the man who executed so many people in Texas when he was governor, regardless of new evidence that might have exonerated some of them, backing away from his macho confrontation with Saddam. It would be against his nature, a rigid and stubborn, unreflecting and committed nature. So we and here I have to speak as an American, even though I've lived more than half my life on this side of the pond are going to be attacking Iraq, whether or not the UN endorses our actions, and we'll do it even if it's principally the George & Tony show when all else is done, with walkon, or flyin, parts for a few other governments, Spain's among them. But I'm willing to bet that even on the Bush team, there are folk who are looking for a Blairish third way, who have qualms, who may not have swallowed the rhetoric whole, as indeed the American public seems not to have entirely swallowed it. Support for Bush's war is dwindling apace, and there is growing dismay with his new tax cuts 47% for the richest 1% of the population, and the least for those who have least. Sort of like the bible's, For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath. Can't say I ever really understood that one, but it's clear that Dubyah does. But I stray from my point. I've got a suggestion for the Bushies. I was but a wee, stickyfingered tot when Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, incinerated Hiroshima, but I can still recall that among my responses awe, curiosity, even pride an interior voice asked the question, Why wasn't it possible just to demonstrate the bomb, not drop it on living people? I wondered then, as I wonder still, if we might not have achieved the same result by pulverizing an uninhabited island or two off Japan's coast, demonstrating our capacity to obliterate their cities, but sparing the Japanese the heartbreak of 100/175'000 lives lost in that single city, and America the shame of using, on human beings, the until then ultimate weapon of mass destruction. I have since learned that by that time in the war, we had effectively won, were able to bomb conventionally with impunity, and that the Japanese were actively seeking a way of ending the conflict with a minimum loss of face. So all these years later, the interior child finds himself pondering the same question, whether it isn't possible to accomplish our goal in Iraq, the removal of the odious Saddam, without shedding the blood of innocents, or at least by minimizing the loss of life. The idea is simple childishly simple that we demonstrate our power, but exert it in increments, slowly, rationally, if that's a word that can ever be applied to the use of military force. Given that the hawks are committed to a military solution, I've just been wondering if a demonstration might not be a smaller, cheaper in all senses option. Let's try for Saddam's ego, his pride, his image with his people. Next Tuesday, say, we drop a million leaflets over Baghdad, warning the people that on Thursday we are going to bomb 18 of Saddam's 35 palaces in and around the city not saying which of them and that they should stay well clear of all of them. We broadcast the same news via the Arabicspeaking TV and radio stations, and then on Thursday, we send our vaunted smart bombs, capable of falling down any programmed chimney, and we destroy a portion of our egomaniacal enemy's palaces, his sumptuous symbols of arrogance. There are 78 of them in the country, 50 of them new. We have no lack of choice. The morning after the bombing, we announce that we're going to do it again in another three days, that Saddam has three days to step down, or be removed. But he will fill all his palaces with women and children, realists will say, and he will announce that he's doing it. So? So on Thursday, we bomb a few of his military establishments (not many) and drop leaflets the next day telling the people that we didn't bomb the palaces because he stuffed them with children. We broadcast and remember, we are supposed to be the masters of persuasive psychology that we've just added the personal homes of a number of Saddam's colleagues and supporters to the smart bomb list. Three days later, we announce again that we are going to bomb Saddam's palaces, and this time, after consulting our satellite photos, which are advertised as able to tell us the movements of a mite on a mouse, we bomb a palace or two, plus a house or two of a Saddam supporter. The screw turns slowly. Yes, there may be a loss of life. He may indeed have kept people inside the targets. We've got to accept this risk, be prepared to know that we may be killing innocents, but knowing also, as the world will know, that he put them there, not we. And the next day? Can he point to charred bodies and hold the moral high ground? No. And what of the handful of homes of his supporters, razed to rubble? What will his other supporters be thinking? Our goal, after all, is the removal of Saddam with the minimum of loss of innocent lives? What we are demonstrating is our overarching power, our ability to reach anywhere at any time, but at the same time our willingness to stay our hand, to act with minimum force, and that we feel a moral repugnance at taking lives. Can we do it the other way, with overwhelming conventional forces, with air power, land power, marching troops and an invasion to create our own appointed regime? No doubt. But at what cost in the lives of our own and allied soldiers, at what cost economically, and at what cost both morally, and in terms of our standing in the world? This strategy perhaps the idea is so small as to warrant being only a tactic could go on for some time. We announce a target, then pinpoint bomb it, or choose to destroy an alternative site if we think that Saddam is packing the target with hostages. Sooner or later there will be a rebellion among his own folk, sooner or later the hostages will flee, or fight, or organise, and sooner or later his supporters, cronies, fellow thugs, will eliminate him rather than risk the destruction of their own homes. Someone, sometime, will rise up and smite him. And then where will we be? Will we have accomplished our goal? No, not entirely, but we'll have moved a step forward we'll have deposed Saddam, accomplished what we characterise as regime change, with a minimum loss of life. We may have to treat with an almost equally thuggish successor, but I think we could count on more cooperation from whomever might inherit the thorny crown of Iraq. We may not have the tool of our choice, but we'll have an alternative to Saddam, we'll have proven a point, demonstrated our power, shown our maturity and compassion, and paved the way for a gradual change, not just in Iraq, but in all the Arab countries under threat from a poverty of political choice and regressive fundamentalism. Then what? Then comes the biggie. Then we must begin to address the Israeli/Palestinian problem with the same degree of pragmatic maturity. Is the Bush administration capable of this kind of lateral, postmacho thinking? My inner child waits with trepidation.