On Iraq, Blair reprises role as US bridge to Europe

Fresh from his latest diplomatic rounds, the British leader comes to the US today for a meeting with Bush.

With Europe deeply divided over whether to back the United States in a potential war with Iraq, Britain's Tony Blair is again emerging as President George Bush's most important diplomat.

The British prime minister has embarked on a global diplomatic mission reminiscent of his efforts to help President Bush build international support in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He engaged in a wave of diplomacy this week in a new drive to build support for using force to disarm Iraq, if Saddam Hussein does not voluntarily comply with the UN demand that he disarm.

Immediately following President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, Mr. Blair met Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for talks on Iraq. He also planned to meet Spain's prime minister José Maria Aznar yesterday before flying to the US on Friday for talks with President Bush at Camp David. Blair spoke this week by phone to the leaders of France, Canada, Australia, and Turkey. Next week, he is scheduled to meet French President Jacques Chirac; and Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, will travel to London for talks on Iraq.

"Blair is doing what the British have had to do historically," says Robert Worcester, a longtime analyst of British politics and chairman of the London-based MORI political research group. "Britain has to play the role of the connection between the US and Europe."

Overcoming the divisions in Europe will not be easy. Of the four European countries currently on the UN Security Council, Britain and France are veto-wielding permanent members. Germany, a member for the next two years, has already said it will vote against any resolution to go to war with Iraq. Spain backs the US. Germany will chair the council next month, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell presents Washington's case against Iraq. Blair's challenge is to convince French President Jacques Chirac to back the US. That would leave Russia and China as major unknowns, but Moscow indicated this week it may toughen its position on Iraq.

While Germany's "nein" is nonnegotiable, the French have left a door open.

"France was more clever," says Donald Anderson, a member of Blair's Labor Party and head of the foreign affairs committee of the British parliament. "Our assumption is that there may be a degree of brinksmanship, but in the end they will come along."

While Blair has a lot of friends in Washington these days, he is suffering politically at home for his support for President Bush.

Resentment in Britain over Blair's support for the US position on Iraq is the subject of daily editorials and jokes in the press. In a recent edition of the Sunday Observer, a caricature depicts President Bush as the Lone Ranger and Blair as Tonto. When Blair questions Bush on Iraq, the president retorts: "Shut up, Tonto, and cover my back."

In another cartoon that appeared in the latest edition of The Spectator, Blair is facing a crowd of demonstrators, explaining: "Don't get angry with me! I don't make the rules."

The latest public-opinion polls, which were taken before the president's State of the Union address, show declining support for military intervention in Iraq. Early indications are that President Bush's speech has not had much impact on swaying public opinion in Europe, say analysts.

By contrast, polls show that Britons are more concerned about becoming victims of a terrorist attack than they are about Iraq.

Andrew Kerr, a law student at the University of Greenwich, summed up what many here are thinking: "Where's the evidence? There is no justification for a war. There has been no breach of UN law and they haven't found weapons of mass destruction. Our efforts would best be focused on the war against terrorism," he says.

Mr. Blair also faces growing opposition from within his Labor Party, even from members of his own cabinet. At least one member of cabinet, Clare Short, development minister, has threatened to resign over Iraq.

"If you choose to operate outside international law and you act in defiance of any democratic mandate from your own society, sooner rather than later the mandate the prime minister has will be withdrawn by the British people," says Alan Simpson, a Labor member of Parliament from the Nottingham South district.

There is also concern in Britain that Blair's unflinching support for President Bush has estranged Britain from Europe. This is ironic, say analysts, because Blair is widely seen as one of the most proEuropean of British politicians of his generation.

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder paraded their unity on Iraq during recent ceremonies celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty that created the special relationship between one-time enemies France and Germany. The Franco-German partnership has been a driving force behind European integration, often leaving Britain on the sidelines.

Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian, wrote in the Guardian on Jan. 23, that during his first term in office, Blair had tried to reassert Britain's role as the third party at the core of Europe.

"But now it looks as if we've reverted to form: France and Germany waltzing on the dance floor, while Britain seeks solace in the muscular arms of America," says Mr. Ash.

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