Fighting The Tide

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Tony Blair had never taken such a beating. Last week the British Prime Minister suffered the biggest back-bench defection of any government of the past century. While previous Prime Ministers, such as Anthony Eden and Neville Chamberlain, lost their jobs over military actions that went badly, Blair got bludgeoned for a war that hasn't yet begun.

When an antigovernment motion stating that the case for war against Saddam Hussein is "as yet unproven" was supported by 121 Labour Members of Parliament — nearly a third of Blair's total parliamentary contingent — Blair held to his position like a man standing up against a gale. The renegades, joined by Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and M.P.s from nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, didn't come close to getting their amendment passed, but that was little solace to Blair. "This is not an issue of backbenchers opposed to their government, or even Labour Party members opposed to their government," says backbencher and former Labour junior minister Glenda Jackson. "It is about the nation opposed to its government."

As George W. Bush vows to push ahead with his war plans, majorities across Europe remain opposed — and nowhere is that opposition more pronounced than in the countries whose governments are most supportive of Bush: the U.K., Spain and Italy. Three weeks ago, Europeans made their feelings known with mass marches across the Continent. Now smaller groups are taking a more direct approach. In Italy, protesters disrupted trains carrying military equipment, encouraged union dock workers not to load U.S. materiel at the Tuscan port of Livorno, blocked ferries in the Sicilian port of Catania and busted into an Italian military airbase in Pisa. Similar actions took place in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. None of them had much effect — "We know we can't stop them, but we can slow them down," says Nicola Fratoianni, 30, one of the protesters who broke into the Pisa airbase — but they're the sharp edge of a movement that's not going away.

Blair emerged from the Commons battle looking haggard. But he sat down in front of the television cameras with six antiwar campaigners for an impassioned debate, saying he was backing the U.S. position on Iraq "because I believe in it." There's no doubting that. But stalwart conviction doesn't always convince others, and most Britons have not yet been persuaded. Recognizing that, Blair has put great stake in securing a second Security Council resolution that would give the war a measure of international approval. But the necessary votes are hard to come by and the threat of a veto remains. So Blair jeered at Saddam's promise to destroy his outlawed al-Samoud 2 missiles — "He never makes any concessions at all other than with the threat of force hanging over him," Blair said — even as France, Germany and Russia seized on the move as evidence that inspections are working after all.

 

Blair's U.N. resolution co-sponsor, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, also stood firm in his support for action when he visited French President Jacques Chirac in last week — even though polls show Spanish opposition to a war running at 85%. Aznar will rely on the strong discipline of his Popular Party (PP) to fend off an opposition motion to be offered this week against his pro-American stance. "We are serenely concerned but very tranquil, because we are convinced that the best policy is the one of honor and truth," Aznar said last week. His serenity and tranquillity may be sorely tested. His party is losing support to the rival Socialists and his position infuriates even some traditional allies. Says Guillerme Vázquez, spokesman for Galician Nationalist Block: "The government doesn't give a damn what the people think."

While Blair and Aznar hang tough, Washington's other chief Western European ally, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is looking a little rattled. With 88% of Italians opposed to a war without U.N. backing, Berlusconi is waffling about his once forthright support for Bush. "Military action by one country outside the United Nations would be so harmful that I don't think anyone will shoulder such a serious responsibility," he said at a press conference in Rome last Friday.

Berlusconi's shift might have been influenced by the world's best-known peace activist, Pope John Paul II. The Vatican has become something of a revolving door for politicians seeking religious counsel or political cover from the Pontiff: over the past few weeks Blair, Aznar, Kofi Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz have all dropped by. The Pope has called this Wednesday a day of fasting and prayer for peace, and this week he will dispatch Pio Cardinal Laghi, a former papal nuncio to the U.S., to Washington to meet with Bush. The Vatican's Foreign Minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, said last week that "a unilateral war of aggression would constitute a crime against peace and against the Geneva Convention."

That line isn't far from Chirac's. Like Blair, Chirac also faced a debate last week, but the one that took place in the French National Assembly was of an entirely different nature than in the British House of Commons. In France, opposition to war holds firm among more than three-quarters of the population. When Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said that the second Security Council resolution introduced by the U.S., the U.K, and Spain "has no justification today," he reaped sage nods from throughout the house.

It's one thing to preach happily to the converted, but the real issue is how far Chirac will go in trying to block the U.S. effort. Socialist leader François Hollande had a clear answer: "France must go, if need be, to the end: to the use of its veto ... the means to refuse legal cover to an illegitimate intervention." For months, polls have shown that the French public would like to see the country use its veto. But many on the right pointed out that a veto could have dire consequences for France. As independent as France is, they contend, it is in more natural company alongside the U.K. and the U.S. than China and Russia. A veto would risk making the current rupture with the U. S. permanent, and that could cripple France's economic and geopolitical interests.

 

Though it would require extraordinary contortions from him at this point, Chirac has never excluded the possibility of joining in a war against Saddam, however distant that possibility may be from the mind of the average French citizen. France's diplomatic efforts now will center on stalling any consideration of a second U.N. resolution until after Hans Blix's next official report to the Security Council. If that report is damning, "Chirac can say he tried everything, but Saddam was just too stupid, and France will have to join in," says Guillaume Parmentier, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations. "The Socialists will go berserk, and selling the switch to the public will not be easy, but it's in the cards." If Blix's report indicates that the inspections are working, Chirac will have another reason to resist a second resolution. Even then, he may respond not with a veto but with the diplomatic equivalent of a Gallic shrug — avoiding a final showdown with America and a humiliating knuckling-under to the Anglo-Saxons.

The dilemma is less acute for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who for months has maintained a fundamental position of nein. Because Germany has no veto power in the Security Council, it is under less pressure than France. But the Schröder government can't harbor any illusions that its opposition is cost-free. In another signal of displeasure with Schröder, the Bush Administration last week rolled out the carpet for Angela Merkel, the German opposition leader, who was granted access to top Administration officials from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

For now, European opposition to the war appears to be more of a nuisance than a real problem for the U.S. In Belgium, protesters have repeatedly tried to block trains carrying U.S. materiel from German bases to the port of Antwerp, but U.S. Army officials at European Command in Stuttgart say they haven't even noticed. Public dissent in Europe seems to be making a similarly weak impression on Washington's war calculations. But Bush does need allies; if not to prosecute the fighting, then to manage and help pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. So it's in his interest that his supporters are still in power when the shooting stops.

"The government doesn't listen to us when we ask them to stop facilitating this war," says Finbar Gerald, 30, a former aircraft engineer who was among the protesters who tried and failed to disrupt operations last weekend at Ireland's Shannon airport, where planes carrying U.S. troops to the Gulf stop to refuel. "So people have to do more than ask." What they're doing now is protesting and engaging in direct action. But soon enough they'll be voting too, and that's something Europe's leaders may want to keep in mind.