Letter From London
Not since the days when a young, bearded Bill Clinton demonstrated outside the US Embassy here has British opposition to an American war been so outspoken, so widespread and so politically impotent.
France may threaten a Gallic "Non!" at the United Nations, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder can give the German Sonderweg (special path) a whole new spin with his firm insistence that Germany will not join this war, but as far as Tony Blair is concerned if American troops march on Baghdad the British will be right alongside them--with or without the sanction of the UN. Blair's defenders argue that his "shoulder to shoulder" engagement with the Bush Administration has already moderated the terms of the American "war on terrorism" and, in the case of Iraq, has encouraged Washington to rein in the Pentagon's belligerent unilateralism in favor of the supposedly more nuanced approach favored by the State Department under Colin Powell. Blair's critics, who tend to prefer a different anatomical analogy for the Prime Minister's proximity to the President, point out that Powell makes an unlikely pacifist (an analysis borne out by recent events). They also increasingly question whether Blair's efforts have amounted to even a speed bump in the path of the American juggernaut.
Memo to Donald Rumsfeld: War against Iraq is every bit as unpopular in Britain as it is in the rest of "old Europe." When Blair made his case on David Frost's morning TV show on January 26, a telephone poll afterward showed that two-thirds of viewers were still not convinced, a result in line with recent polls by the London Times and Guardian newspapers. Take away the cover of a second UN resolution and support for military action drops to 10 percent. Rowan Williams, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, has denounced the war as immoral, as have the leaders of Britain's Catholics, Muslims and Methodists. Even the Chief Rabbi has expressed serious misgivings about the war unless "supported by a broad international coalition." The Daily Mirror, a tabloid that generally supports the Labour Party, has used its campaign against the war to build circulation. But other papers have been just as skeptical, and recently the Daily Telegraph, the only daily to actually come out in favor of the war, worried that "as things stand, the noes have it," because "the anti-war camp is getting the better of the argument."
With opposition ranging from trade unionists to high Tories, how long can Tony Blair hold out? The Labour Party enjoys a huge majority, while Parliamentary elections are years away. If, as many here fear, Britain follows America into war without the UN, and Blair is faced with a motion of no-confidence, the Conservative Party would almost certainly back the government. (Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith's slavish loyalty to Washington makes Blair look like Fidel Castro.) Nor is Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose outspoken opposition to the war has lifted his party into near-parity with the Tories, currently in a position to seriously damage Blair. The real threat would have to come from within Blair's own party, and though an unpopular war might split the Labour Party, and a long, bloody, inconclusive war would probably do so, at the moment the considerable Labour opposition to the war has come entirely from the party's backbenchers, not from within Blair's Cabinet.
Which isn't to say Blair hasn't paid a price for his bellicosity. An administration already seen as highhanded and authoritarian in its dealings with teachers, firefighters and local governments now seems even further from popular sentiment. And a government that once defined itself partly in opposition to the cranky Europhobia of the Tories now finds itself at odds with its closest European allies. Whatever happens in Iraq, the fallout from George and Tony's Big Adventure is likely to be toxic to Blair's long-professed aim of putting Britain at the heart of Europe.
In the meantime, how strong is European opposition? On the streets of Paris, Rome, Amsterdam or Berlin the war is at least as unpopular as it is in Britain--though only in France and Germany has that unpopularity been reflected in government policy. Germany's Schröder, who built his election comeback around opposition to this war, and governs as part of a coalition with the Green Party, is unlikely to waver. French President Jacques Chirac has much more room to maneuver. It is still unclear what prompted the French, whose recent declarations against the war seem to have caught both the British and the Americans by surprise, to rally to Germany's side. Given France's sizable Arab population, French interests in Iraqi oil, Chirac's own recent electoral history (as the beneficiary of a broad coalition opposed to Jean-Marie Le Pen) and France's debt to Germany for blocking British moves to curb European agricultural subsidies, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Chirac, though acting globally, is thinking locally. And local conditions are subject to change. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of French people say they don't think war is justified. But only some 20,000 turned out for a demonstration in Paris on January 18--and most of them came from the Palestine solidarity movement.
What seems unlikely to change, and what unites demonstrators across Europe, if not their governments, is a deep distrust, often approaching fear, of the United States. The goodwill and sympathy so evident after the September 11 attacks has been replaced by anger at the Bush Administration's contemptuous disregard for international opinion on a host of issues, from global warming to Israeli aggression to the International Criminal Court.