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U.K.: Blair's Mission Impossible -- Stand By Bush And Assuage Domestic Critics

  • Kathleen Moore

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in the United States today for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush that are expected to focus on the timing of, and planning for, a possible war on Iraq. Blair has been the staunchest supporter of Bush's stance on disarming Iraq, saying force may be necessary with or without UN backing. But he's also expected to press the case for more time for the UN weapons inspectors. It's a risky time for the prime minister, who's under pressure from antiwar feeling at home.

Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Poor Tony Blair. The British prime minister is a staunch supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. But all he gets at home, it seems, are the taunts of critics calling him "Bush's poodle" and organizing antiwar marches featuring speeches by his own members of parliament, like speaker Jeremy Corbyn who recently spoke a rally in London: "We've established a coalition of people who are determined to stop the bloodshed, stop the war, and stop Blair's close relationship with George Bush!"

Today, however, Blair will be enjoying a much warmer reception. He's in the United States for talks with Bush. It is a meeting some media outlets have called a "war council," as it's expected to focus on the timing and planning of a possible attack on Iraq.

In the run-up to the meeting, the talk coming out of London has grown increasingly tough. First there was British reaction to the chief weapons inspector's report to the United Nations Security Council this week, where Hans Blix said Baghdad had not been fully cooperative.

Many European allies said, "Give the inspectors more time." But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the report showed that Iraq is in "further material breach" of UN disarmament demands.

Then Bush outlined the case for war in his annual State of the Union address, adding that Iraq has links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Blair spoke of those links in an address to parliament the next day and said Britain should stand side by side with the United States. "I really see no point in trying to pose differences, for example, between ourselves and the United States when the purpose of what we are doing at the moment is to unite the international community around the United Nations' position set out in Resolution 1441 and make sure that that resolution is then implemented," Blair said.

And Blair was one of the main driving forces behind yesterday's declaration by nine European leaders (Latvia, Slovenia, and Romania declared their support today, bringing the total to 12) calling for Europe to support the United States in its confrontation with Iraq.

Wyn Grant is a professor of politics at Britain's Warwick University. He says Blair's tougher talk is an attempt to create as receptive an atmosphere as possible during his U.S. visit so that he can press for the point he wants to secure in the talks. That, chiefly, he said, is asking for more time for the inspectors, certainly beyond their second report to the UN, expected on 14 February. "Obviously, there's a military timetable here and that offers certain constraints. But I would have thought he would be thinking at least about six weeks [more for the inspectors] from where we are at the present time," Grant said.

In the run-up to the talks, Blair has also been busy trying to pull the international community together. In the last couple of days, he has met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. And he has also spoken over the phone with the French and Russian presidents and the Turkish and Greek prime ministers.

Coalition building is harder now than it was in the days immediately after 11 September 2001, when Blair drummed up broad European support for a U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. Now, Germany, France, and Russia -- the latter two are veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council -- are notable doubters.

But John Rentoul, who has written a biography of Blair, said that Washington does value Blair's "roving ambassador" efforts. "It is very important to the American president to be able to point to other countries that are supporting him, because American domestic opinion is not as hawkish about the war as it's often portrayed. American public opinion is quite keen to see America acting as part of an international coalition. Tony Blair is terribly important to that, and he's also important to the Europeans as the one person who has a bit of leverage over the Americans and who can urge restraint. But to be blunt, Blair's position is not one of tremendous restraint; it's mostly one of giving the inspectors a bit more time," Rentoul said.

At home, it's a tricky time for the prime minister. A hard-core group of Labour Party members of parliament, like Corbyn, is opposed to war whether or not it's backed by the UN. The Iraq issue also threatens to split Blair's cabinet: International Development Minister Clare Short this week voiced concern about casualties. And public opinion is also overwhelmingly against military action, though it's somewhat less squeamish about a UN-backed war.

Just a few weeks ago Blair seemed to be softening his tone in an attempt to assuage those critics, saying he wants a second UN resolution that would authorize war. The prime minister, however, stopped short of committing to the demand.

Rentoul said the prime minister's tone and tactics have changed to suit the circumstances. But his bottom line remains the same: He'd prefer a second resolution but doesn't want to be confined if it's vetoed on "unreasonable grounds."

He added that Blair is taking a big risk in believing the inspections will give him a "propaganda coup" by providing evidence to back British and U.S. claims of an urgent Iraqi threat. If that does happen, Rentoul said, Blair might be able to sway some public opinion in his favor. "He has taken it through the UN so far, and if he can make the case that the UN's authority is being undermined and that Saddam is doing something terrible -- if he can persuade people of that -- then I think there will be a large section of the British public that will change their minds," Rentoul said.

Britain's hard-core antiwar camp still plans to make things uncomfortable for the prime minister. One of Blair's next big engagements at home is at a Labour Party conference in Glasgow on 15 February. Antiwar campaigners say they plan to march to the conference center and time their most boisterous protests to coincide with Blair's speech.