Tony Blair Wants More

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It had been planned long ago as an Iraq victory rally during which America would honor its British ally by awarding Prime Minister Tony Blair the congressional gold medal. But Thursday, despite Bush's ringing praise and Blair's passionate, poetic salute to America before a joint session of congress, neither sounded triumphalist. The medal ceremony was postponed to a later date, and Blair and Bush spent the afternoon firing back at Iraq war skeptics and vowing to press on until they prevail — and are vindicated. The Blair line that got most media attention in his own country was his rationalization of the war in the event that no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq: "If we are wrong," said Blair, "we will have destroyed a threat that is at its least responsible for human carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive." Failing to act if the suspicions had been correct would, he added, have been unforgivable. Still, to Britons it was an unmistakable hint from a prime minister trained as a lawyer and known for choosing his words with precision that the weapons of mass destruction offered as the reason for going to war may not materialize.

Later, before taking media questions alongside Blair, Bush made a brief speech that largely echoed his prewar phrases, although in the past tense: "Saddam Hussein produced and possessed chemical and biological weapons, and was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program," Bush said, adding that "The regime of Saddam Hussein was a grave and growing threat." But the President and his British counterpart are encountering a growing torrent of skepticism over their prewar assessments because, three months after the coalition occupied Iraq, so little evidence has emerged to back those claims. Both men found themselves referring instead to Saddam's behavior in the 1980s — Blair to Iraq's known uranium purchases from Niger back then, Bush to his gassing of the Kurds and the nuclear program revealed in 1991 — to reinforce their belief that he represented an imminent threat.

Blair's government is the source of the claim about Iraqi uranium purchases that continues to dog the Bush Administration. The prime minister continues to insist, despite Washington's retraction, that the allegation is correct. But while the Niger yellowcake story is at the center of a growing Washington brawl over who knew what when, they're something of a minor footnote in Blair's domestic political crisis. The British leader arrived to receive Washington's plaudits at a moment when his standing among his own people has reached an all-time low — and for the same reason that Washington is honoring him: his unflinching support of the U.S. on Iraq. Blair stands accused by legislators of his own party, including former members of his cabinet, of having agreed to a war in Iraq when he met with President Bush last August, and then proceeding to selectively assemble and exaggerate intelligence to make the case to support a decision he'd already taken. A limited parliamentary inquiry concluded simply that the jury was still out, and Blair is under mounting pressure to allow a more extensive independent inquiry.

While Blair sought in his speech to look beyond the political skirmishing on both sides of the Atlantic and turn his countrymen's attention to the universal values embodied in American freedom and at the center of its global fight against terrorism, one of the most pressing immediate disputes between London and Washington concerned a difference in understanding of how those values are to be applied. Under massive domestic pressure, Britain has asked that two of its citizens held prisoner on Guantanamo and slated to face a military tribunal empowered to sentence them to death be sent home instead to face British justice. Much of the British public doubts the fairness and legality of military tribunals and of the Guantanamo detentions; they want to know why Britons captured in Afghanistan are denied a civilian trial when John Walker Lindh was tried by a U.S. court; and they oppose capital punishment. Blair and Bush are slated to discuss the matter and release a statement Friday. Blair is being advised by some veteran British politicians to put his foot down on the Guantanamo Brits, precisely because he's widely perceived in Britain to be too servile the Bush administration — even Margaret Thatcher challenged her close friend and ally Ronald Reagan on his 1983 invasion of Grenada — but that may be dangerous, because pressing the case and failing to bring the two men home would simply underline Blair's subordinate status.

It's questionable whether Blair will ever again be able to lead Britain into a preemptive war alongside the U.S. A majority of Britons tell pollsters that they simply don't trust their prime minister in the wake of the Iraq campaign. He's in no immediate danger of losing his job; his Labor party is in unassailable command of the British legislature, and has no credible challenger right now. But Blair surely remembers the fate of Margaret Thatcher, who was forced to hand over the leadership role to John Major when the British electorate and her own party fell out of love with her.

For Blair and Bush, plotting the future of their Iraq operation is far more important than dwelling on its history. Even as he sang Bush's praises in the Capitol, Blair issued an unmistakable warning: The U.S. can win wars alone, but to win the peace it needs more allies. Even before the war, the British leader had pushed for the United Nations to be given a dominant role in reshaping Iraq, but was forced to settle for the limited and largely symbolic UN role conceded by Washington's hawks. But now that the occupation mission has proven far more arduous, costly and protracted than the hawks had imagined, many in Washington are beginning to revisit the question. That's because the likes of France, Germany and India have made clear that they would contribute troops, but only under UN mandate. And because the European Union has signaled that it would be willing to help fund reconstruction, but only through a recognized international agency. The U.S. is already sounding out the possibility of a UN resolution mandating a U.S.-led international force in Iraq, but the quid-pro-quo in such a transaction would likely be a far greater and more formalized role for the UN in managing Iraq's political transition.

That may not be something the U.S. is ready to consider. Yet. But the burden of the Iraq mission may yet prompt a rethink. And Blair will certainly be back. For one thing, he still as a medal to collect.