When Tony Blair rose to address a packed House of Commons on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Albert Finney had just won an Emmy for his performance as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm. The coincidence was certainly not lost on the prime minister, who has lent George W. Bush a bust of the great man to mark their special bond. But for all the parallels implicit in the moment, there were no Churchillian flourishes in Blair’s rhetoric or growls in his delivery: This was the theater of understatement. Blair’s manner was a coded reassurance that he hasn’t been seduced by the excitable American, even as he sticks to him like a tick on a Texas longhorn. A consummate lawyer, he laid out his case for military action if Saddam refuses to comply with the United Nations.
Given Labour’s huge majority–and the Tories’ hot support for American belligerence–Blair’s speech was aimed more at the doubters in his own party than at his parliamentary opposition. Yet in the end his lengthy catalogue of Iraqi defiance and suspicious procurements (specialized vacuum pumps, anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and 60,000 aluminum tubes) was most significant for what it didn’t say. The words “regime change” were never mentioned; the word “America” only once. Though all of us in the chamber knew that the United States was the driving force behind this précis of Iraqi violations, Blair studiously maintained the fiction that it was a purely British exercise.
The doubters were not convinced. While holding no brief for Saddam, the Liberal Democrats’ Charles Kennedy detected “more than a hint of imperialism” in America’s rush to war. Under a barrage of questions from his own backbenchers, Blair tried to please his audience while carefully avoiding any rift with Washington. No, “regime change” is not the object of our policy, but it would be “a wonderful thing.” Yes, Britain will proceed through the UN, but if a suitable resolution can’t be agreed on, “we have to find a way of dealing with it.” Pressed to come clean on whether he would follow the United States to war without UN approval, America’s First Buddy declared his allegiance. “I believed this before I became prime minister,” he said passionately, “but I believe it even more strongly–in fact, very strongly; it is an article of faith with me–that the American relationship and our ability to partner America in these difficult issues is of fundamental importance, not just to this country but to the wider world.” Denied the opportunity to vote on anything of substance, fifty-three Labour members registered their protest on a technicality.
Across Europe, politicians and the public oppose war on Iraq, at least without the UN’s blessing. Gerhard Schröder’s election victory in Germany, won on the basis of his opposition to the war, suggests the Continent is finally beginning to shake loose from the United States. Rumsfeld’s crude riposte that Schröder had “poisoned” relations revealed how little Washington now cares for fictions of “partnership.” While the memories of September 11 have not faded, the Bush Doctrine’s aggressive unilateralism confirms Europe’s worst fears about American self-interest. But if Britain’s traditional role has been to keep the Cousins properly engaged in world affairs, Tony Blair takes it as his personal crusade. It was Blair who pushed Clinton to intervene in Kosovo; it is Blair, now, who is trying desperately to keep the war against Iraq under the UN’s banner, lest the “Western Alliance” (and his own party) fly into smithereens.
Washington’s intransigence is putting Blair in an increasingly untenable position. If the United States and the United Nations part company, Blair will follow Bush. In time he’ll probably succeed in taking most of the party with him, but there will be hell to pay. Just to compound the nightmare, Blair must know his clout in Washington depends on his being able to bring in that coalition. In love and war, a beard is far less valuable than a go-between.
Meanwhile, on the last Saturday in September, more than a quarter of a million people in London marched against the war. The rally was a marriage of two protests, one by the Stop the War Coalition (Don’t Attack Iraq), the other by the Muslim Association of Britain (Freedom for Palestine). It was a landmark demonstration–the most multicultural British march in memory. But the contradictions that beset the post-9/11 opposition produced some uncomfortable moments. There were the giant cardboard tanks wearing Bush’s head, the grim reaper puppets and embroidered union banners, the Quakers and Tibetan monks and Socialist Workers’ Party. There were a few Iraqi Communists (No to War; No to Saddam Dictatorship), Baghdad women, London Kurds. And for the first time in such numbers, there were tens of thousands of British Muslims: families and women in hijab and fathers pushing prams. But among them also marched groups of young men in martyrs’ headbands; little boys of 5 or 6 waved toy Kalashnikovs. Placards identified the Star of David with the swastika. Fostered by despair at the Palestinians’ abandonment and by the misery of marginalization, the romance of violence is taking root with some young British Muslims, bringing at least a whiff of anti-Semitism.
In Westminster, near-silence on the realities of American power. On the streets, near silence on the dangers of militant Islamic nationalism. As usual, the lives of those who will be most affected by a war–Iraqis suffering under Saddam, Kurds in the firing line–have all but disappeared under the fog of politics.