[A-List] Britain/US split
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Mar 22 01:19:17 MST 2002
Mr Blair must climb out of President Bush's pocket
Echoing the US mantras on Iraq will only weaken Britain's influence
Thursday March 21, 2002
Tony Blair's claim to a major international role rests, as he sees it, on Britain's unique position. Geography and history, combined with his own clear vision and political strength, make this country, he contends, the strongest link between Europe and the US. Other metaphors are rolled into service: Britain as pivot, Britain as bridge. All presume the existence of two continents that could not function without this irreplaceable fastening.
In the days and weeks after September 11, the claim deserved a certain credence. Mr Blair came out first with the strongest expression of solidarity with Washington and New York, and the US leadership thought he was building a coalition. This was an exaggerated judgment. President Chirac got to the US before him, and all EU countries took the right side without needing his encouragement. But Blair was very active. The British military bonds with Washington gave him special clout. It is said that his voice was important in counselling President Bush not to rush too fast into Afghanistan.
Now the picture is different. The intensifying debate about a different idea, an all-out US attack on Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein, finds him in the opposite position. He's walking towards an abyss he doesn't appear to recognise. Instead of doubling Britain's influence, he may be halving it or even rendering it negative. He speaks for America in Europe, but is not heard. He speaks for Europe in America but does not count. The famous bridge is evidently failing to deliver Europe to America, or America to Europe.
Blair came away from Barcelona without securing wider support for military action against Iraq, for which he has been trying to get the world prepared. Some EU countries, pre-eminently France, have commercial reasons for taking a more acquiescent attitude to Saddam, but disinterested alarm is also widespread: alarm at US analysis of the threat and the response, anxiety about the consequences of any reckless US onslaught - and some of those Pentagon boys sure do sound reckless.
Most EU leaders now watch Blair with incredulity. They see him climbing every day into Bush's pocket. He will deny that this is what he's doing. But it's the common perception of his peer-group. Is it his vanity, they ask? A desire to be at the centre of the action? An unquenchable passion to be close to Big Power? Even if his conduct derives from none of these things, and reflects a serious conviction about global strategy, the other leaders do not warm to it. In fact they feel ever chillier.
The pattern began last year, after his first meeting with Bush. On returning from Camp David, the PM sent his then private secretary, John Sawers, to convene a meeting of the EU ambassadors in London to tell them this man was going to be a great president. They found it as hard to credit the message as to purge their annoyance at being required to hear it. Since then, Blair has slipped from being the half-envied special connector with Washington, able to get access on behalf of Europe as well as Britain, to the apparent status of a minor cog in the American machine.
This might, at least, be expected to keep him in with Washington. And having just committed 1,700 marines to take the heat off US special forces in Afghanistan, Britain is a continuing object of gratitude there. Tony Blair is a name that means something in bits of middle America. But that's not the whole story. Another strand of opinion in Bush's Washington has little time for him. Not only was he Clinton's socialistic third way friend. More important, he's failing to deliver the Europeans for the next stage of the anti-terror war. He supplies no added diplomatic value, because he does not speak for Europe.
Before his post-Easter visit to the Bush ranch in Texas, events may have taken some heat out of his Iraq dilemma. It could become less immediate. The Afghan phase is going on longer than most people anticipated. Vice-President Cheney's visit to the region, designed partly to build support for the next stage, has been a failure, which will oblige the US to think again about any anti-Iraq coalition. This will surely compel more delay in decision-making about Iraq, beyond the April 15 deadline Bush set for his own confused and warring Washington agencies to make plans. The continuing carnage in Israel-Palestine makes it harder still to envisage simultaneous operations against Baghdad.
In truth, though, nothing is clear. The Pentagon hawks remain in full flight. They have supporters across the spectrum. An important piece in the new issue of Foreign Affairs finds a respected expert from Clinton's foreign policy team, Kenneth Pollack, making the case for all-out US invasion of Iraq. Domestic politics could soon find its way into the calculations. A rightwing ideologue who has raised a protectionist fence round his steel industry for the sake of saving half a dozen congressional seats might not think it too foolish to start bombing Baghdad a couple of weeks before November elections that might otherwise go catastrophically against him.
However, Blair too faces political pressures, with which he has not been very familiar. The cabinet is restive about an attack on Iraq, whether or not it includes more British troops. The parliamentary party has raised 130 signatures expressing opposition. This week's Guardian poll showed a surprising majority against military action in the foreseeable future. All kinds of voices can be heard, as the issue looms into view, which deny the existence of a national consensus for another war.
For Mr Blair, in these circumstances, to go to Texas and do no more than sooth ingly echo Bush's mantras about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction would be a serious political error. It would weaken his position not strengthen it, in Britain, in Europe and in Washington. His only hope of raising British influence is to speak from the centre of gravity of the EU position, which I take to mean delivering roughly this message:
"Yes, Mr President, we agree that Saddam is a political criminal, who has gassed his own people and will threaten all around him. We know he has chemical and biological materials, some of them weaponised. We accept he may be developing nuclear capability. We acknowledge the global interest in stopping this. We think the world would be a far safer place if Saddam were eliminated.
"But the UN process must come first. The inspection challenge must be made. Let us play for time, enlist Russia, enlist Iran, reform the sanctions regime, sponsor more internal turmoil, before supporting the invasion of a sovereign state by another sovereign state that happens to be more powerful. Beyond that, we must surely have a far clearer idea of what outcome we want and are likely to get. Without such clarity, you can't expect to get unquestioning European, or British, support."
Spoken at first in private, this would be a message that had resonance for two continents. Not spoken at all, it would leave Mr Blair on a bridge that was about to snap off at both ends.
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Mercuria Business School
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
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