It is an unlikely place for a peace movement to start: a classic country pub
in the North-East of England with its car park full of Mondeos and Astras and
its brass fittings and rural prints on the walls. But in the Nag's Head in Sedgefield
this weekend feelings are running high. Neil Hetherington, the landlord, has never
thought of himself as a political man. But his voice may now be heard by more
than his Sunday regulars.
'Tony Blair seems to be like George Bush's puppet,' he said last week. 'We
should only go to war if there is a genuine threat against us.'
Hetherington is not alone. In Sedgefield, Tony Blair's constituency, a new
poll has shown almost two-thirds of people oppose war with Iraq. Secret polls
conducted by Downing Street show a profound unease across the country at the prospect
of military action in the Middle East. Bush is apparently even less popular than
either the euro or the Conservatives.
Last week it was the anti-war lobby's turn to hold the floor. The gung-ho graphics
showing the route the Americans will take to Baghdad were banished from the newspapers,
the hard men putting the case for the war on Saddam Hussein disappeared from view,
the hawks kept their silence.
First up were the soldiers. The former British Chief of Defense Staff, Field
Marshal Lord Bramall, said Britain risked being dragged into a 'very, very messy'
and lengthy war. 'You don't have licence to attack someone else's country just
because you don't like the leadership,' he said. General Sir Michael Rose, the
former commander of the SAS, warned that Iraq would be Bush's Vietnam.
Next came the MPs. Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP and Father of the House of Commons,
demanded the recall of Parliament before Britain joined any military action. Then
came the clerics. Four senior Anglican bishops, including Dr Rowan Williams, the
next Archbishop of Canterbury, signed a petition that was handed in at Downing
Street declaring that an attack on Iraq would be immoral and illegal. A further
eight diocesan bishops all said it would not, at present, constitute 'a just war'.
The big union bosses, like Bill Morris of the TGWU, made their opposition clear
Overseas Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, launched his re-election
campaign by saying that Germany would not be not be 'available for adventures'.
Sweden's Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, agreed. In the Middle East the Saudis said
they were not going to help a campaign that King Abdullah of Jordan called 'somewhat
ludicrous'. By the end of the week support was coming from the most unexpected
of quarters. Hollywood star Woody Harrelson announced that the 'war on terrorism
is terrorism'. And even the previously gung-ho Daily Mail was calling the American
President 'militarist'. The hawks appeared on the defensive, the doves triumphant.
But will it prove to be a hollow victory? Was it a victory at all? Are Blair
and Bush at all interested in what the 'whiners' and 'appeasers' have to say?
And if they are not listening to the peace lobby, then who are they listening
Behind the high pink stone walls of his rented chateau in south-west France,
Blair is attempting to relax with his family. But the red boxes keep arriving
and if Blair had hoped his holiday - and those of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon - might calm the feverish speculation about war
in the Gulf he was wrong.
When Mike O'Brien, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East,
obediently repeated in an interview on Wednesday the official Downing Street line
that a war in Iraq was 'not imminent' he cannot have expected to make the front
The next day's rash of headlines, suggesting that British Ministers were frustrated
at Washington's inability to come up with a definite battle plan, left Downing
Street despairing: attempts to cool the rhetoric had only provoked fresh stories.
Ministers have been told to keep their heads down. 'There is an overly excitable
mood amongst the political classes, and the game is far from clear yet,' says
one senior government source.
But Number 10 knows the issue will not go away. Pollster Philip Gould has been
discreetly testing voters' feelings about Britain's relationship with the US and
its relationship with Europe - the two dominant themes of the coming autumn, when
Blair must juggle looming war in the Gulf with a possible referendum on the euro.
And the flood of contradictory battle plans filling the American newspapers have
hampered the British Government's task of persuading voters that there is nothing
to worry about yet.
So, if Blair wants to go to war, can the polls be turned around in time? Peter
Mandelson, who has just returned from a trip to Washington, suggests they could.
The two key figures on whom Blair will rely for advice in shifting public opinion
are Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff at Downing Street, and Sir David Manning,
his foreign policy adviser. Both have excellent Washington connections: Manning
will transfer to Washington shortly as ambassador, but a likely replacement is
the current British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Derek Plumbly, who has a profound
understanding of the Arab world.
Together, the Downing Street team will hope to repeat the tactic used during
the Afghanistan conflict: publicly they stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the
Americans, hoping privately to get advance access to - and influence on - military
and diplomatic strategies.
But in Europe it is the US's hazy plans for a post-Saddam regime that are fueling
alarm. The French government was unimpressed by the speed with which the Americans
dumped the multi-million pound responsibility for reconstruction and peacekeeping
in Afghanistan on EU countries. Bush, says Mandelson, has not yet mastered an
'international language' that resonates with both frightened Americans and wary
Europeans. The EU states, meanwhile, insist there must be a new UN mandate for
Several of Blair's own Cabinet Ministers share that view. Talk of Cabinet resignations
may be overheated, but Blair could lose a handful of more junior Ministers if
the war is not seen to have international authority.
Labour is braced, too, for clashes with the grass roots during party conference
season this autumn. A noisy confrontation with anti-war union leaders at September's
TUC conference in Blackpool could be defused by the fact that Blair will address
them the day before the anniversary of 11 September: delegates might be in too
somber a mood to make much trouble.
But there will be few such qualms when he returns to Blackpool three weeks
later for Labour's own conference, the eve of which will be marked by a massive
anti-war rally. Conference votes are not binding, but Blair will not want to be
seen facing internal dissent at what may be a crucial time in American preparations.
The plush bar of the Ritz Carlton hotel in 'Pentagon City' is where the military
top brass like to go for a cool drink and a chat before returning to the Virginia
suburbs, dinner and the family. It's also where they get to know the Pentagon's
civilian political appointees - the people whom the soldiers watch coming and
going with the Presidents.
Usually the atmosphere is convivial. Now, however, it is as cold as the beer.
There is little love lost between the professional soldiers and politicians working
for - and ferociously loyal to - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy,
The military are content with the policy of containment that they, and most
experts, see as having boxed in Saddam Hussein since the Gulf war of 1991. The
political appointees, meanwhile, are anxious to unleash America's military might
against the Baghdad regime. 'I spend half my day telling generals how to fight
a war,' jeered one senior aide to Wolfowitz.
Both sides are seeking to win over America's President and people. The civilian
politicians have the advantage of a political affinity with the White House and
the sympathetic ear of George Bush. The military are countering with a series
of carefully managed leaks to the press of battle plans which if carried out,
they say in private, could result in calamity.
Whereas in Britain it is the doves who are holding the floor, in the US it
is the hawks who are making their case most forcibly. Though claims of a connection
between an al-Qaeda hijacker and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague have
been debunked, Rumsfeld says that 'absolute proof' of Iraqi complicity in 11 September
is not necessary to justify an invasion. Like their British counterparts, the
American hawks point out that time is short: 'The whole question is, how long
do you wait with Saddam Hussein in possession of capabilities he has and would
like to have?', says Richard Perle, former Defense Secretary and now director
of the Defense Policy Board.
Even hawkish sources, however, discount the likelihood of military action this
side of the congressional elections in November. They are aware that a war could
easily dominate the remainder of the Bush presidency. Instead they tip early spring
as the time for a strike.
The most influential of the doves are the military themselves, including General
Tommy Franks, who ran the war against the Taliban. They are aware of the potential
Military officials argue that a combination of the 'no-fly zones' enforced
over north and south Iraq, a sporadic bombing, a US military presence near Iraq's
borders and sanctions has prevented Saddam from threatening his neighbors, let
alone the US, or even effectively updating his arsenal.
'I'd argue that containment is certainly a better approach than either marching
on Baghdad or destabilizing the Iraqi government by killing Saddam,' said Colonel
Richard Dunn, a former army strategist.
The key question contested by hawks and doves is whether Saddam has the ability
to hit Israel or other US allies in the region with non-conventional weapons.
The military think not. The civilian hawks, basing their assessment on intelligence
reports, say that, even if he can't now, he will be able to soon.
Colin Powell's State Department is more concerned with the aftermath of an
attack. His officials say they fear an invasion could disrupt the region even
more than Saddam currently does.
There are signs that the hawks aren't having it all their own way. Senior Republican
senators, including a Texan, publicly voiced their unease last week. There are
other signs that anti-war sentiments are growing outside 'the Beltway'. A local
paper in Buffalo, New York state, called for the 'saber-rattling' to stop. 'Why
give radical anti-American Islamists even more political ammunition with which
to recruit suicide bombers and attract the financial donations that fund their
assaults?', it argued.
In the New York Times , two of Washington's most respected foreign policy experts
at the Brookings Institution, Michael O'Hanlon and Philip Gordon, argued for containment.
The New Yorker magazine devoted its lead comment piece to a fervently argued case
against war. In the Los Angeles Times , a commentary headlined: 'Weighing a just
war, or settling an old score?' opened with the line: 'What the heck, let's bomb
'Sure, it's one of the more historically important cities in the world, and
many of its more than three million inhabitants will probably end up as "collateral
damage". But if George the younger is determined to avenge his father and keep
his standing in the polls, that's the price to be paid.'
The war for public opinion in the UK, the US and elsewhere is clearly just
beginning. Many analysts believe that the hawks have merely made a tactical withdrawal
and are marshalling their forces for a major push to convert public opinion in
the autumn. 'There is a sense that the doves have committed themselves too early.
They will run out of arguments just when the hawks start to make the case for
attacking Saddam,' said Daniel Neep, an Iraq specialist at the Royal United Services
Institute. 'Watch this space.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002