U.S.-Europe Clash Deepens Blair's Iraq Dilemma

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ALLIES: Blair has made the case before Britain's House of Commons, but will other European nations agree?

As the U.S. goes toe-to-toe with continental Europe's major powers over Iraq, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair will likely find himself increasingly in the diplomatic spotlight. As the one ally that has stood firmly by the Bush administration on Iraq — to the extent of ordering one quarter of Britain's entire army to deploy in the Gulf by mid February — Blair may have a significant role in shaping the diplomatic pre-game and timetable of any U.S. invasion. President Bush is signaling growing impatience with the UN weapons inspection process, and administration officials are furious at France and Germany's rejection of any move to military action at this stage. The French and German positions are being driven by the overwhelmingly antiwar sentiment of their citizenry, and the fact that over 80 percent of the British electorate opposes military action without UN backing creates a problem for Blair.

On the eve of the UN inspectors' January 27 briefing of the Security Council, the U.S. continues to insist that Iraq has failed to meet its obligations, and appears inclined to move the discussion on to the "serious consequences" of which Baghdad has been warned. But France, Germany and Russia have all said this week that they see no basis right now to seek military action against Iraq because the arms inspectors have not yet turned up evidence that would, in their minds, justify going to war, and as long as Iraq cooperates they see no reason to terminate the inspection process. President Bush is having none of it: "How much time do we need to see clearly that he's not disarming?" Bush said on Tuesday. The European skeptics, however, have not yet been convinced that Iraq is, in fact, illegally armed to the extent that Blair and Bush claim. And with France and Russia wielding Security Council veto power and Germany, in the chair for February, controlling the council's agenda, the Bush administration will struggle to win UN backing for military action in the coming weeks.

But Blair emerges as the pivotal figure not because of the international equation — in which the U.S. and Britain remain fairly isolated in pushing for military action — but because the American electorate does not share Bush's impatience, and has misgivings about going to war without UN backing. Most polls find that an overwhelming majority of Americans would back a UN-authorized war, fewer than 40 percent would support the U.S. acting without UN backing. And a new Washington Post-ABC poll also found that, like the Europeans, seven out of ten Americans would give the UN inspectors months more to probe for prohibited weapons in Iraq before moving to military action. So, if the administration is inclined to press ahead without UN backing, British support would be important in helping sway American public opinion. But Blair himself may find it increasingly difficult to join an invasion without UN backing.

The British leader meets with President Bush at Camp David on January 31, four days after UN weapons inspectors deliver an update to the Security Council. And despite the Bush administration's inclination to close the case in short order, that may not work for Blair. With opposition to a war at this stage growing in Britain and Europe despite the prime minister's valiant efforts to stem the tide, Blair is likely to press Bush to counsel patience and press Bush to stay on the path of seeking UN authorization for military action. Blair affirmed on Wednesday that Britain would support military authorized by a UN resolution, or in a situation "where it was clear there was a breach by Saddam and there was unreasonable blockage of a Security Council resolution." Those are two important qualifiers: Firstly, that the case for war be made on the basis of evidence of a breach — and Britain has differed conspicuously with U.S. efforts to characterize Iraq at this stage as in breach of Resolution 1441 — and secondly that once such evidence has emerged, a resolution calling for action be put to the Security Council.

Blair's war plan is premised on the certainty that the inspectors, guided by British and U.S. intelligence tips, will discover evidence of continuing prohibited Iraqi weapons programs, and that such discovery will enable Britain and the U.S. to convince the Security Council to authorize military action. But that course of action requires further patience from the Bush administration. The inspectors have yet to produce any finds that would convince doubters that Iraq maintains active programs to produce new chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And given that the U.S. and Britain began dribbling intelligence tips to the inspectors only in the past couple of weeks, Blair is more sympathetic than Bush to the Europeans' case that the inspectors must be given more time to complete their work.

After hearing from chief inspector Hans Blix on January 27, the Council is likely to respond favorably to his request for more time and ask him to report again in February. That may increase the inclination of administration hawks to simply discard the UN process Washington initiated last September, and march on Baghdad without UN authorization. Blair, for his part, will likely be trying to persuade Bush against such a course, in the belief that inspections assisted by Western intelligence are certain to, sooner or later, make an incontrovertible case for war. But the deployment of a massive invasion armada that will near completion in the coming weeks may set distinct limits on how much longer President Bush is prepared to indulge the inspection process.