“I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go,” President Bush told Britain’s ITV News as he prepared for the arrival of British Prime Minister Tony Blair Friday for weekend meetings at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. Though recent violence on the West Bank and in Israel has shifted the focus of press attention to what Bush and Blair will have to say about that conflict, the president’s blunt remark was a reminder that this meeting of allies was originally organized as a forum to explore how Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could be made the next target of an expanding “war on terrorism.”
Blair reportedly arrived in Crawford with plans to tell Bush that talk of launching a war on Iraq ought to be put on hold at least until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calms. The question that remains is whether Blair will give Bush an honest report on British sentiments regarding plans for an eventual attack on Iraq by the U.S. and Britain. If the prime minister does that, the summit will not provide Bush with much in the way of encouragement.
It turns out that Blair, who has been the president’s most enthusiastic international ally since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has been having a very hard time making the case at home for British support of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
Indeed, some of the loudest opposition to a Bush-Blair alliance on Iraq is coming from within the prime minister’s own Labor party and from the national newspaper that historically has been most supportive of Labor Party initiatives.
Dismissing Blair’s sympathy for the American president’s military strategies as misguided, the mass-circulation Mirror newspaper has taken to referring to the prime minister as “the president’s poodle.” “We didn’t do so lightly — but the truth is the prime minister has done nothing but play lapdog to the Washington Red Neck,” Mirror editors wrote in an editorial that appeared Friday morning. “Whenever Bush has barked, Mr. Blair has rolled over with his legs in the air. As other European leaders held back from jumping to Bush’s demands (on Iraq), Britain under Blair has rushed forward with embarrassing haste.”
The Mirror told the poodle to show his teeth in Crawford. “When (Blair) sits down with Bush, he must remember just what sort of man the president is. He’s ruthless — a man who has sent hundreds of convicts to the execution chamber. A president determined to take the war wherever he wants,” the newspaper argued. Referring to Bush’s enthusiasm for war with Iraq, the newspaper argued, “Mr. Blair must be the voice of reason. He must stand up to Bush and, if needs be, say ‘no.'”
Though the U.S. media has given little notice to Blair’s homeland insecurities, the story is front-page news in London. “Blair threatened with huge revolt over Iraq stance,” read a headline this week in The Independent, a national daily newspaper. “PM faces dissent on Iraq after supportive words for Bush’s fighting talk,” read a recent headline in The Guardian newspaper. When Dick Cheney arrived in London last month to consult with Blair regarding Iraq, the Mirror headlined its story on the meeting: “An American Warwolf in London.”
Polls show that a majority of British voters oppose an attack on Iraq. Anti-war demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands. And British Home Secretary David Blunkett reportedly briefed a meeting of Blair’s Cabinet last month on the danger, if the British military joined a U.S. attack on Iraq, that riots could break out in the streets of British cities.
The opposition Conservative Party has generally backed Blair’s talk of taking on Iraq, although some Tories wavered when senior British military sources told reporters that, “We are not aware of evidence, intelligence or otherwise, that the Iraqi government or its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa’ida. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the Iraqi government to the September 11 attacks.”
Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party — which has 53 members of parliament, including a former Labor Party member who recently switched because of his opposition to Britain’s role in the bombing of Afghanistan — are openly critical of Blair for following Bush’s “Lone Star nation” line too closely.
Some of the toughest criticism of Blair comes from within the Labor Party. More than 120 of the party’s members of parliament have signed a House of Commons motion expressing “deep unease” about any British alliance with the U.S. to attack Iraq. Former Labor Party Cabinet minister Tony Benn, a Blair critic, says, “The objections from parliament are very significant because, of course, the parliamentary party is far more supportive of Blair’s position than the grassroots of the party.”
The Campaign Group, an organization of Labor parliament members that is a British version of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the U.S., is urging Britain’s 641 local Labor party organizations to pass resolutions opposing British participation in any new military assault on Iraq. Many Campaign Group members have been loud critics of Saddam Hussein, and remain so. But they are objecting now to expanded British involvement in a war against a country that, to their view, does not pose a significant terrorist threat.
“If Britain is trying to be a global policeman on the U.S. scale, the money is going to come from hospitals, schools, pensions and the other necessities of people’s lives,” explained Alice Mahon, a Labor Party member of parliament. Critics also warn that a massive strike by the U.S. and Britain against Iraq will, in the words of former British Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd “further polarize and alienate opinion within the Middle East and broader afield.”
“The cause of terrorism is not fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists but instability, disempowerment, marginalization and the anger generated by these combined factors,” says Labor Member of Parliament Ian Gibson. “If the United States invades Iraq, it will nourish these sentiments in the Middle East.”
Are the Labor Party critics of Blair merely a fringe element? In fact, one of the most outspoken foes of an attack on Iraq is International Development Secretary Clare Short, who told reporters she would quit Blair’s Cabinet if Britain joined a U.S. strike on Iraq without United Nations backing. Former Culture Minister Chris Smith has been critical of the rush to war. And Tam Dalyell, the longest serving Labor Party member in the parliament, has been a fierce critic of advisors who have pushed Blair to align with the U.S. rather than follow the direction of the United Nations.
When a Blair foreign policy advisor recently proposed that Britain might join U.S. military interventions as part of “a new kind of imperialism,” Dalyell declared, “”The Tsarina of Russia was better advised by Rasputin than the prime minister is by this maniac.”