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Seven Days In Hell

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For Tony Blair, it was the ultimate week from hell. The British Prime Minister was already looking pretty scuffed up when it started, with a member of his own cabinet calling his Iraq policy "extraordinarily reckless" and threatening to resign if Blair went to war without a second U.N. resolution. Things got worse as France vowed to veto any such resolution, "whatever the circumstances" — and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to question Blair's resolve to take part in military action. Would Blair back down? By mid-week, there was open talk of regime change in London if he didn't.

But somehow Blair came out of the week in better shape than he went into it. If he wasn't exactly in control, at least he looked more commanding and confident. He easily parried criticism in Parliament; vowed to "hold firm to the course we have set out," with or without the U.N.; cannily attacked the French for making war more likely; and seized on George W. Bush's promise of a "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Bush's Middle East announcement, which promises to find a path to security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians by 2005, was also meant to find a path to security for the embattled Blair. The Prime Minister has consistently argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as important as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, so he immediately hailed Bush for accepting "the obligation of even-handedness" in the Middle East.

Others suspected that the initiative was just a desperate bid to prop up Blair's position at home. Though he may not get his second resolution, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, if it comes, would certainly help mute domestic criticism of the Prime Minister.

 


Meanwhile, as Blair took advice from his closest advisers on the legality of going to war without a U.N. mandate — and refused to divulge what that advice was — Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday was shaping up as his doomsday. The Commons was packed and tense. A gray-faced, exhausted Blair, his voice hoarse, slipped quietly into his seat. Asked whether the U.S. would go to war without the U.K. if there was no second resolution, he said, "What is at stake here isn't whether the U.S. goes alone or not, it is whether the international community is prepared to back up the clear instruction it gave to Saddam Hussein with the necessary action." Blair gave a strong performance, and Labour backbenchers closed ranks behind him — even many of those who are opposed to a war felt that the time for revolt had not yet come.

Such a boost was unthinkable just a week ago, when Clare Short, Blair's outspoken International Development Secretary, shattered the cabinet's facade of solidarity in a Sunday radio interview by threatening resignation and denouncing her boss's policy. (One parliamentary ministerial aide had already quit over Blair's Iraq policy, and others warned that they might follow suit.) Short is admired by the left, but her resignation by itself wouldn't precipitate a crisis of confidence; she quit a shadow cabinet position in 1991 over the last Gulf War. The fear was that she might touch off a wave of cabinet defections.

On Monday evening, after Chirac had vowed to torpedo a second resolution, Blair sailed on anyway, making his case in a televised debate. For an hour he fielded hostile, often sarcastic questions from 20 women passionately opposed to a war. The Prime Minister carefully explained the reasons for his Iraq policy, but was rewarded for his efforts by slow hand claps as the program ended. He didn't let it faze him.

On Tuesday, Rumsfeld — trying to be helpful — pointed out that domestic opposition in the U.K. made it "unclear" whether Britain would be able to join the U.S. in military action. Just when Blair needed to look strong and unyielding, Rumsfeld made him look the opposite. Blair was furious. After a few transatlantic calls, Rumsfeld issued a clarification in which he reaffirmed his confidence in Britain's full military support in a war.

 


But the good times didn't last. On Thursday, Paris rejected London's proposal for six concrete tests of Saddam's compliance, a rejection that came even more quickly — as Blair's and Bush's spokesmen trilled in unison — than Saddam's. Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin dismissed the idea out of hand: "It's not a matter of agreeing on a few more days for Iraq before resorting to force, but rather to move forward resolutely on the path of peaceful disarmament through inspections, which are a credible alternative to war." In response, Blair made a tactical strike against France, describing the French position as "completely intransigent."

By Friday things were looking up again. Bush announced his Israeli-Palestinian "road map" and Blair spent 10 minutes on the phone with Chirac. Neither man changed his position, but there was symbolic movement when Chirac offered to shorten the four-month period France proposed as necessary for the arms inspectors to complete their work. "We cannot accept an ultimatum or automaticity of a recourse to force," Chirac reportedly told Blair. "Before any decision, the inspectors should come back to report to the Security Council and it is up to the Council to decide." Privately, officials at the Quai d'Orsay regard the British proposals as a trap more than a test. "They amount to a transparent attempt on the part of Blair to save his own skin," says Guillaume Parmentier, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations. "Certainly no one in the French government wants to spend any time helping Tony Blair."

Maybe not, but by the end of the week, it seemed that some people in the British government did — and that hadn't been clear just a few days before. "Some of his party may give him trouble, but it doesn't really matter," says Robert Worcester, chairman of the mori polling organization. No rival can match Blair's popularity, and his personal approval ratings have actually risen in recent weeks — a sign that Britons respect this stubborn, principled man even if they disagree with him. As Blair flew to a summit in the Azores with Bush and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar — a summit that looked like a council of war — there was still little appetite in Britain for military action without the U.N.'s blessing. If Blair goes ahead anyway he may encounter more serious rebellions — from the backbench to the streets of London. His week from hell could be followed by others that are even worse.

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