Can Tony Blair Bring Britain Around on Iraq?

For Britain's Tony Blair, it's one of the biggest political challenges so far. The Labour Prime Minister is caught between overwhelming domestic opposition to a possible war with Iraq and a foreign policy predicated on the preservation of Britain's longtime special relationship with the U.S.--at almost any cost. How Blair deals with this dilemma could make a difference not only to his own future but also to the strength of any international coalition that could back America's plan to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

On Sept. 3, Blair gave the strongest signal yet that he is willing to back the U.S. on Iraq. "The United States should not have to face this issue alone. We should face it together," he told reporters in his home district of Sedgefield in the north of England. Britain's support for the U.S. is considered a prerequisite for getting other European countries to give political backing to an attack on Iraq, analysts say. Blair is dispatching Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon to the U.S. on Sept. 9 to meet Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to discuss possible military strategy. And Blair himself is expected to embark soon on a round of shuttle diplomacy, much as he did prior to the war in Afghanistan, to stitch together an international coalition to back potential military action.

Yet by helping President George W. Bush to make the case for an attack on Hussein, Blair risks alienating millions of British voters, as well as his own Labour backbenchers. "Unlike Afghanistan, there is a lot of confusion in Britain about why we're considering going to war and what we will achieve at the end of it," says Sir Timothy Garden, Britain's former Assistant Chief of Defense Staff.

Indeed, Blair is facing mounting criticism from voters and his own party. A survey conducted by polling agency ICM Research for the Daily Mirror in late August shows 71% of British voters opposing a war against Iraq that is not sanctioned by the U.N. Some 38% consider Blair to be "Bush's poodle," according to the poll. More than 160 Labour members of the 659-member House of Commons have signed a motion cautioning against military action. And there are signs of dissent within Labour's top leadership. Although he hasn't raised the issue publicly, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is said by government sources to be worried about the cost of British involvement in a war with Iraq and the subsequent impact on Britain's economy. Such concerns are sure to be raised at the annual Labour Party conference on Sept. 28.

But not for nothing is Blair known as Teflon Tony. He hopes to circumvent British hostility to war by persuading the U.S. to take its case to the U.N. Even if the U.S. fails to win U.N. approval for an attack, "Blair will support Bush," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "He sees it as a moral issue." Blair told reporters on Sept. 3 that he could not live with his conscience if Iraq used nukes because Britain and the U.S. had "wobbled." In exchange for supporting Washington, Blair is likely to push for assurances that the Bush Administration will stay involved in a post-Saddam Iraq. Blair doesn't want the U.S. to "leave it to the Europeans and others to pick up the pieces," says John Chipman, director of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

For Blair, the biggest challenge will be convincing the British public that his loyalty to the U.S. is justified. If the U.S. can mobilize international support, especially from the U.N., opposition in Britain is likely to recede. Blair, the consummate politician, knows that these are big ifs and that public support can be withdrawn as quickly as it is offered. At least for now, it's a gamble he's willing to make.

By Kerry Capell in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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