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Iraq: Blair Takes Low-Profile Position On Possible U.S. Campaign

  • Charles Recknagel

Many European leaders have criticized Washington's increasingly threatening tone toward Baghdad, which some see as a sign the U.S. is ready to try to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair has largely stayed out of the international discussion, raising questions as to what role London might play in any potential U.S.-Iraq confrontation.

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The prospect that the U.S. might strike Iraq -- which Washington deemed the most threatening aspect of an "axis of evil" last month -- has raised a storm of warnings from European leaders, including some in the British government.

Earlier this month, German Deputy Foreign Minister Ludger Vollmer told reporters that "we Europeans are against it. [There] is no indication, no proof that Iraq is involved in terrorism."

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine criticized what he called Washington's "simplistic" approach to foreign policy, while Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, urged the U.S. not to act as a "global unilateralist."

And Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech more of a vote-winning tactic for this year's U.S. congressional elections than a foreign policy statement.

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair has appeared reluctant to join the sometimes acrimonious trans-Atlantic discourse. Instead, he has focused on backing the U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan. His reticence has led to much speculation about what role Britain -- America's closest ally -- might play in any new U.S. confrontation with Iraq.

That speculation grew this week as British media reported that Blair is due to travel to Washington in April to meet with Bush. Britain's daily "The Observer" quoted a senior British official as saying privately that "the meeting will be to finalize Phase Two of the war against terrorism with action against Iraq at the top of the agenda."

The paper also called the planned trip "a clear signal that Downing Street fully backs Bush's plans to launch a war against Iraq if Saddam does not agree to deadlines to destroy his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."

To learn more about the posture Blair might adopt when he meets with Bush, RFE/RL asked experts to analyze the position he appears to be have adopted to date.

Michael Binyon, diplomatic editor of Britain's "The Times," says that Blair has deliberately stayed out of the international discussion of Iraq because he does not want to influence Washington's decision-making process.

"I think [Blair] would like the issue [of targeting Iraq] simply to go away. I think there is a lot of lobbying beneath the surface, there are a lot of messages going back and forth. The feeling is that the issue isn't firmly decided yet in Washington. And that therefore by [Blair's] getting too publicly involved in the matter it would simply complicate the decision making in Washington."

The U.S. government is reported to be divided over its Iraq policy, with some top officials advocating stronger political and diplomatic pressure on Baghdad and others advocating military solutions. Washington has yet to officially announce its final choice.

Binyon also says that in speeches so far, Blair has sought mainly to prepare British public opinion to accept that Washington may act militarily against Iraq. But, he says, Blair has not called for Britain to take similar action.

"There is a very strong element in the United States that is pushing for [a military solution], and I think the issue isn't completely decided in Washington yet. But I think [Blair] is trying to get public opinion in Britain to understand that this probably may happen, even if public opinion here is pretty hostile to the idea."

Binyon says one strong reason why Blair may be staying away from the international debate is the fact that he faces strong opposition within his own Labour Party to participating in a military campaign against Baghdad. That opposition centers on uncertainties over whether preemptive strikes on rogue states are a legitimate way to remove potential threats from mass destruction weapons programs. There is also doubt about whether military action could guarantee the Iraqi leader would be replaced with a stable government.

Some of the most vocal criticism has come from the left wing of the Labour Party. One left-wing Labour member of parliament, Alice Mahon, recently urged Blair to distance himself from Washington, saying that "unease over Britain's uncritical support for President Bush's military adventures is growing every day." She also said that "the British public has the right to know if the prime minister is likely to commit the government to backing an onslaught against Iraq."

But the opposition is not confined exclusively to Labour's left wing. Some key mainstream members have also urged Blair to be cautious about getting Britain involved in targeting Iraq. The "Financial Times" this week quoted Donald Anderson, Labour Party chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as saying, "the parliamentary Labour Party would be very cautious in all circumstances."

Analysts say that the conflict between the pressures of Britain's special position as America's closest ally and the reservations of some of Blair's party members puts the prime minister in a delicate situation.

Paul Wilkinson of the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland, puts Blair's problem this way.

"I think [Blair] would regard the maintenance of the special relationship coalition with the United States, the close alliance with the American government, as an extremely important part of [Britain's] foreign policy but it's likely that ministers, particularly senior ministers in the foreign affairs and defense fields, or people with a knowledge of those matters in the cabinet, would be counseling caution because they would be familiar with the views of their constituents."

Wilkinson also says that widespread domestic debate over Britain's role in any strike on Iraq has yet to take place. But he says that if and when it does, some top government officials are likely to question whether Britain has the military resources to participate in an expanded war on terror. Critics are likely to argue that any new involvement contradicts Britain's own efforts to reduce the size of its military in line with a strategic defense review aimed at creating a smaller, more cost-efficient and modern armed forces. British troops already are participating in peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Kabul.

As Blair now prepares to meet Bush in April, the British prime minister has yet to give a hint of what message he will take to the American president. As recently as this weekend, he continued to express the strongest support for the U.S.-led war on terror. But Blair, who played a key role in winning international support for strikes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, refrained from talking about Britain's role in any expansion of the antiterror campaign.

Speaking to several other European leaders in Stockholm late last week, he said only: "We will deal with the issues together. The Americans are absolutely right to emphasize the continuing importance of the war against terrorism and continuing the elimination of weapons of mass destruction."

"The Times" diplomatic editor Binyon says he thinks Blair will use the April summit to press Bush to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. He may also, if military action seems inevitable, assure Bush of Britain's intelligence and logistical support.

"I think [the message to Bush] would be: 'Keep up the pressure, do what you have to do in trying to get missile inspectors and inspectors on chemical and biological weapons back into Iraq, but think very carefully about the political fallout and the actual effectiveness of any operation you might be planning.' [Blair] would say, 'You could count on British cooperation, particularly in such matters as intelligence and such logistics support as using American air bases in Britain.' But I don't think there would be very much beyond that."

Binyon adds it is unlikely Blair would offer direct British troop involvement or his own personal help as a globe-trotting spokesman for the effort.

"I think he would feel he is onto a hopeless task, to convince the rest of the world to back this. I think he would recognize that the Americans have done it despite pretty much worldwide calls not to do it. And of course, then the frank political assessment is that, if it works, fine; if it doesn't, well they let themselves into their own mess."

Talks between the UN and Iraq on the possible return of weapons inspectors are due to begin in New York on 7 March. Weapons monitors left Iraq in December 1998 on the eve of a U.S.-British bombing campaign to punish Baghdad for not cooperating on arms inspections.

Both the U.S. and Britain have long called for the immediate return of weapons inspectors, while rejecting previous Iraqi efforts to make the full lifting of sanctions a pre-condition for readmitting them.