Published on Saturday, February 15, 2003 by the Times/UK
Alliance with US Could Make Blair First War Casualty
by Bronwen Maddox
THE report by Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector and the reaction from France amounts to a political nightmare for the Prime Minister. Blix was far softer towards Iraq than suited Blair, and France far more unyielding towards the United States. The possibility of a second United Nations resolution, which Blair needs far more than does President Bush, now looks slim.
This weekend will show the value of the transatlantic relationship in which Blair has invested so much: whether Washington will be prepared to try to salvage some form of international agreement despite its fury at the intransigence of Old Europe. There is probably more room for maneuver than France yesterday implied, and the US could probably win international backing for war if it were prepared to give inspectors more time.
But if Americas patience has run out and it will not countenance delay, Blair faces the kind of choice that can end a premiership. He must either follow the US into war, without a resolution and so with little public support at home, or break with the Bush Administration, the single relationship on the world stage with which he has most been identified.
No one has ever expected Blix, who owes his academic reputation to his study of Swedish neutrality, to lay out a decisive case for war or peace. Yesterday he did repeat the charge that Iraq had failed to account for many weapons, but compared with his tough-talking report a fortnight ago, his delivery yesterday helped only the doves.
He began with a dig at Colin Powell, saying that the US Secretary of States evidence, released with such showiness last week, was inconclusive. He noted that Iraq had even if just hours before his report passed new legislation to ban the import of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had turned over more papers, including some about anthrax, although they contained no new evidence and answered none of the open questions. Yes, the al-Samoud missiles inspected by his team did appear to fly between 10 and 20 per cent farther than they should. But all in all, Blix made more powerfully the implicit case in his last report: that he was making progress, that his teams resources had only just reached full strength, and that he hoped that with more time, Iraq could be disarmed without war.
Most of the 15 members of the UN Security Council agreed with him, it seemed from the statements that followed. Last night, at least, it seemed unlikely that the US could win backing for a second resolution which authorized war despite passionate speeches from Colin Powell and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. That is, to win at least nine votes out of the 15, and not attract a veto from any of the five permanent members of the Council (France, China and Russia as well as the US and Britain).
But it all continues to hang on France, the most likely of the five to use its veto, and which also has heavy influence over at least four of the undecided votes on the council Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and Mexico.
On the face of it, the language used by Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, was entirely unyielding. The use of force is not justified at this time, he said, adding, there is an alternative to war and that the use of inspectors had not been fully explored.
As the worlds diplomats pored over these phrases, they tended to agree that this amounted to a statement that France would use its veto to strike down any resolution backing immediate war. But after a bit more time for inspections? And if so, how much time? That is where, in diplomatic slang, there might be wiggle room.
It is fair to assume that the French would at least listen to such a bid. For all the tough talk from Paris, it has carefully been keeping its options open. After all, its battleships are still heading for the Gulf, its jets being refitted for combat, and its officials said to be talking quietly to the Pentagon about what role France might play, if it did eventually back action.
If the US wants a second resolution, that is the battlefield on which any deal must be thrashed out, determining whether more time would mean just weeks, or months in which the military and political calculations would change, and the cost of keeping American troops in readiness would soar.
The question is whether it will bother. Bush cannot ignore public opinion entirely. But although many more Americans support war if the US has won international backing, the numbers supporting war even without such endorsement have been rising all the same. So another resolution is useful to him welcome, as he tersely put it at his last meeting with Blair. But it is not essential, and if the French demanded too much delay as the price of consensus, the US might well decide to do without it.
Blair has not given himself such freedom. Far more than Bush, given the pressure from within his own party and the unions, not to mention widespread public doubts, he needs to produce some kind of second resolution. He has all but committed himself to that in recent days, to the point where it does not matter too much what the piece of paper says, so long as he can produce it. But if the US wants to press ahead regardless, Blair will pay a much heavier political price than Bush.
So he is at the mercy of Bushs patience. Given the Presidents bad temper at their last meeting, after Blairs petition for more time, that is a politically dangerous place to be.
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd.