Published on Thursday, June 6, 2003 by the International Herald Tribune
White House War 'Spin' Entangles Downing Street
Blair In Trouble
by William Pfaff
PARIS - From the start, it has been hard to understand Tony Blair's conduct concerning the war on Iraq.
Clearly, Britain's prime minister believed deeply in the moral case for unseating Saddam Hussein. He had nothing to gain politically from supporting President George W. Bush, since the British public was initially against the war. But he backed Bush so obsequiously that he actually forfeited the influence he might have had in Washington, Bush's pally treatment notwithstanding. He simultaneously reinforced Britain's reputation in Europe as incorrigibly Atlanticist and divisive.
Rodric Braithwaite, a former chairman of Britain's joint intelligence committee, said of the prime minister's performance that "a junior partner who is taken for granted is a junior partner with no influence."
To have influence, you must express opinions and national interests of your own, and indicate that on some issues you might break with the partner. It is no use playing Little Sir Echo.
Blair remained faithful even after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told him the United States didn't really need British troops, and after the administration subverted his independent effort to work with the Palestinians.
Now Blair is in trouble. It has been charged that the decision to go to war was taken in Washington last autumn and that everything that followed was an expedient charade. London and Washington are accused of lying to get public support for the war and of faking evidence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has given a candid and convincing explanation of how it began to the magazine Vanity Fair. Implicit in his account is that the Bush administration last year wanted to go to war but had no excuse for doing so. The bureaucracies were called together and told to find an excuse. The "core" casus belli they could agree upon was Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction.
That settled, it became the government's virtual reality that the weapons existed, even if the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and United Nations inspectors had not found them.
The mighty Wurlitzer of American policy, persuasion and press was put to work to convince the public and the world of the reality of this threat, so that America could go to war. Britain's modest harmonium joined in. The prime minister proudly furnished Washington with two dossiers of evidence on Iraqi weapons that subsequently proved very dodgy.
After the war, the coalition's failure to find the weapons had to be explained. First it was said that the weapons had been smuggled to Syria. Then Rumsfeld suggested last week that none exist, that they were destroyed before the war and all evidence buried. This week he reversed himself and said they do exist, still are there and will be found.
The U.S. military command in Iraq said the search may take several years since it is a big country. Bush went back into virtual reality mode last weekend and told Polish television: "We found the weapons of mass destruction." On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed confidence that they will eventually be found.
Blair's contribution Friday was to say that the coalition has been too busy to look for the weapons.
In the United States, until now, few seemed to care, thinking that the war had been a splendid little affair. Now, however, Congress has interested itself in what the Senate and public had been told, and there is growing support for hearings to be held by the Senate's Armed Services Committee, as well as the intelligence committees in both the House and the Senate.
Britain used to have higher standards, and faces a much more aggressive press corps. His government has a reputation for "spinning" its public relations, but not for the bare-faced lie. Blair himself has the reputation of a decent man.
On Tuesday the House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee announced that it would hold an inquiry into Britain's decision. A final report is likely to be made to the prime minister's office rather than to Parliament.
Such discretion may not be possible, however, if the American hearings stir trouble in Washington (and on television). Blair may come to regret having been so reliable an American partner.
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