Why Blair bangs the war drums
British leader, taking a hawkish stance, pushes NATO to send more
LONDON — With bulldog tenacity, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been telling NATO "to do whatever is necessary to succeed" in the war against Yugoslavia.
His outspoken views helped push President Clinton last week to back the deployment of 48,000 troops near the Kosovo border to serve as a peacekeeping force once a peace agreement is reached. NATO was expected to formally approve that step on May 26.
But Mr. Blair and his officials still insist that the troops might be needed even without a peace agreement.
"The issue of judgment that needs to be made is, at what point in that endgame would it be appropriate, would it be safe, would it be right for NATO troops to enter Kosovo to secure it and to escort the refugees home," Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Parliament last week.
Such hawkish views run the risk of dividing NATO, according to John Keegan, one of Britain's most highly respected military analysts. The author of the acclaimed "A History of Warfare" says Blair is "listening too hard to readers of tabloid newspapers."
In Britain, questions are piling up as to why Blair has committed himself so deeply to the use of ground troops when other governments involved in the Balkans conflict are reluctant to take the same line.
At the outset of the NATO air campaign, British commentators concentrated on Blair's well-known Christian convictions and his support for an "ethical foreign policy." They noted that he was quick to describe Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic as a "war criminal" sanctioning "immoral actions" by Yugoslav forces.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, left-wing columnist Richard Gott observed: "Two historical strands in Britain's national life - the military and the missionary - are still very much to the fore, and Tony Blair has clearly received a strong dose of both."
Adding to Blair's confidence is his massive majority in the House of Commons. Along with his personal popularity, this enables him to strike out on policy lines in ways that President Clinton, who faces a hostile Congress, is unable to match.
By adopting a bold approach to the Kosovo conflict, Blair may have failed to notice that he was exposing Mr. Clinton's own political difficulties.
Apart from Mr. Cook and Defense Secretary George Robertson, who continue to hew closely to the Blair line, senior government ministers appear reluctant to give outright public support to Britain's war policy. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown have been virtually silent on the conduct of the war and the tensions that have developed between Blair and Clinton.
Defense analyst Mr. Keegan says that although the prime minister is a "master politician," he has "no experience of conducting the diplomatic or military side of war."
By adopting a gung-ho approach to the Kosovo campaign, however, Blair is following in the footsteps of earlier British leaders.
In 1956, then-Prime Minister Anthony Eden committed Britain, alongside France, to an invasion of Egypt in an unsuccessful bid to regain control of the Suez Canal.
In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered British forces to recover the Falkland Islands after their seizure by Argentina. Mrs. (now Baroness) Thatcher later allowed British airfields to be used when American aircraft bombed Libya. She committed British air, ground, and naval forces to the US-led attack on Iraq.
Political analyst Andrew Rawnsley notes, however, that the US has a marked tendency to undercut British military adventures of which it does not approve. President Eisenhower condemned the 1956 Suez invasion which, without American support, turned into a catastrophe. "Even Ronald Reagan wavered about supporting his soulmate Maggie in the Falklands and neglected to warn her about his invasion of Grenada," Mr. Rawnsley says.
Keegan agrees that the Kosovo campaign cannot be won with air power alone. "Blair is right in his aims," he says. But he describes British public support for the prime minister's approach as "fragile," adding: "Those who cheer him on do so in the spirit of football supporters.
"If British servicemen return home with the Kosovo crisis unresolved, the political consequences for Blair and the Labour Party will be severe," Keegan predicts.