A Friend in Need: Our Pal in London Takes It on the Chin

Iraq has already cost Tony Blair his premiership. Success in the war, as long as it is quick and relatively bloodless, may stave off the hour of reckoning by two or three years, but when the history of his government is written, Iraq will be seen as the turning point, and Mr. Blair will be known as the first casualty of the Second Gulf War.

It’s part of the quality of the man that he’s prepared, I’m sure, to suffer his fate with dignity and equanimity. He thinks Saddam Hussein a sufficient threat to British and Western security that his continuance in government blights both Iraq and the Middle East; and he thinks Britain has an obligation to its American ally under an acute terrorist threat. There’s no denying Mr. Blair’s inner steel over this matter-it may be a steeliness born of having backed himself into a corner, but it’s a steeliness nonetheless. He’s like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

But the large majority of his party membership in the country and approaching half the Labour members of Parliament are in open and passionate disagreement with his policy on Iraq. The latest polls suggest that in the absence of a second United Nations resolution, only 15 percent of Britons favor an invasion.

The British parliamentary system is subtle. The government is formed by the party that controls the majority of votes in the legislature-the House of Commons. This puts abundant power in the hands of the prime minister (he’s simultaneously head of the executive and legislative branches), but it also means that he’s more accountable. If he can’t control the votes in the House of Commons-or if it appears that soon he won’t-he is lost. The system is only operable if political parties loyally vote in the Commons the way their government instructs them, but this umbilically links the government, the party in the Commons and the party members in the country. If there’s an issue that the party in the country can’t stomach, then M.P.’s will be told in no uncertain terms of their local party members’ unhappiness, and this quickly translates into unsteadiness in the House of Commons-and begins to destabilize the government. It’s a process of political disintegration.

Already, 122 Labour M.P.’s have voted against Mr. Blair’s position on Iraq. Unless there’s a second U.N. resolution, the number will quickly rise to over 200, including junior and senior members of the government. With over 50 opposed Liberal Democrat votes, at least a dozen dissident Tories, and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists in opposition, control of the House of Commons is becoming insecure. Mr. Blair needs 326 votes to maintain his majority. He may no longer be able to obtain them; and if he does, he will have been bailed out only because the opposition-the Tories-have voted with him. It’s this growing realization that’s weakening him by the day. Tony Blair is fighting for his political life.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice & Co. were lucky to find a man of such principle and purpose at the helm of the British government. There’s no better testimony to the disdain in which they hold all interests and views except their own that they’ve placed such an able politician and key ally in such an impossible position. Their palpable lack of concern for securing the legitimacy of Anglo-American action in Iraq through the United Nations, along with their overt bullying, have so subverted the process that even if there is a second resolution-which looks less and less likely-many will simply regard the U.N. as having been co-opted to give a multilateralist gloss to American pre-emptive unilateralism. President Bush and his cabal may not give a fig for international opinion, but they have cut the ground away from Mr. Blair. They risk losing him, and thus Britain, from the war effort they’re devising. The American public, I hope, will damn them for it.

Mr. Blair is only trying to do the right thing. He wanted Saddam Hussein disarmed and regime change launched in Iraq as part of a wider settlement in the Middle East that would stop terror in its tracks. And he wanted this policy executed in such a way that the world would acknowledge its legitimacy. He wanted a U.N. framework, including a series of deadlines for cooperation from Saddam, and if the deadlines were not observed, military intervention would follow. This was to be matched by moves to demonstrate to the Arab world that the West would deliver a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mr. Blair calculated that his policy was self-evidently sane, that the American administration was sufficiently rational and that he could therefore engage with the Bush administration-and together they would cajole the rest of Europe into following suit. The U.S and the European Union would move in lockstep to fight terror in an expression of legitimate international interdependence.

It was a massive miscalculation: Mr. Blair had not reckoned with the hard-line ideological approach of the Bush administration. And he failed to recognize that British public opinion is now part of the “European street”-that its hitherto-reflex response (back America in any major crisis) would be broken by the evident thinness of the argument for going to war without international legitimacy and without incontestable evidence of Iraqi wrongdoing and noncooperation.

Mr. Blair has been squeezed by two immovable objects-Mr. Bush and the European street. My own view is that it was perfectly obvious early last year how events would pan out. Mr. Bush’s hubris after Afghanistan would lead to an acceleration of the go-it-alone, coalition-of-the-willing framework, and British public opinion would react to that brash posture in the same way as European public opinion. I also believe that Mr. Blair could have played his cards differently-indeed, I tried on one occasion to persuade him to do so. He should first have formed a joint European position involving some give on all sides, the core of which would have accepted intervention in Iraq within a clear U.N. framework. Then, in concert with the other European leaders, he should have told Mr. Bush that unless he accepted the E.U. position, he would have to launch war by himself.

But Mr. Blair didn’t do that. He chose what seemed at the time the easier option. Entrenching the alliance with the United States has always in the past been the best policy for British prime ministers-best for domestic politics, best for international outcome. It was an instinctive reaction, given additional momentum by compassion in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. I think Mr. Blair genuinely thought he would get more purchase on American policy than he has-not because of British influence, but because he has faith that right will out. He didn’t reckon with the awesome, self-defeating stupidity of current American conservatism, and now we in Britain and you in America risk losing a great leader who has generous instincts and fundamentally the right approach to ordering the world. As he told last year’s Labour Party conference, we live in an era of interdependence. Would that the Bush administration saw this so clearly.

Will Hutton is a columnist for the London Observer . His new book, A Declaration of Interdependence , will be published by W.W. Norton in May.