Alliance with U.S. big risk for Blair

Sun Foreign Staff

LONDON - When he meets with President Bush at Camp David today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be seen by many Americans as an unwavering ally of the United States, the most recent leader of a country that has been an extraordinarily staunch friend over the decades.

But at home, and in much of mainland Europe, many people will see him differently.

Blair's alliance with Bush has caused political problems for him in Britain, and threatens his goals of teaming up with the United States and also increasing Britain's influence with Europe, much of which opposes a war with Iraq.

But Blair, through conviction and political calculation, has steadfastly backed the United States, which he promised to do within hours of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Neither Germany's refusal to get involved in a war nor France's strong reluctance has led to signs that Blair will deviate from a course that looks increasingly as if it will lead to war. Neither have public opinion polls in Britain, which show that more than 80 percent of respondents oppose an invasion of Iraq. If anything, as Germany and France have restated or increased their opposition to war, Blair has become an even more important player on the world stage by sticking with the United States.

He has been both a vocal backer of military force, if necessary, and a private voice of caution, having urged Bush to seek a United Nations resolution before using force, a counter to arguments from Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"Blair has positioned himself, has won the credibility, to become a player in the Bush administration," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute in London. "Bush listens to Rumsfeld, Cheney - and Blair."

The prime minister's public comments indicate that he has strong sway over Bush. In arguing for Hussein's removal, Blair was using the term "disarmament" at every opportunity - a term more palatable among European leaders than "regime change," which the Bush administration had been using for months before reshaping its arguments using Blair's vocabulary. Before the bombing of Afghanistan, it was Blair who urged - and had a strong hand in arranging - an international coalition to take part.

He is now pushing for a second U.N. resolution as debate within the Bush administration apparently continues.

"I think history will judge him very well in regard to him being a tempering force," said Clarke. "His problem isn't history but the current risks at home."

Indeed, Blair, while working to rally world support for a possible attack against Iraq, has had little success in Britain. With the exception of a few brief periods - the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 is one example - the United States and Britain have been staunch allies, a relationship cemented by World War II. That has worked well for the United States for reasons of diplomacy, and it has helped maintain a world role for Britain.

The alliance also gives Britain definition. The French can usually be counted on to try to be a broker in world affairs and then follow the U.S. lead. The Germans are reluctant, for historical reasons, to become involved in any war and can be counted on, as the largest economy in Europe, to push multilateral solutions with Europe playing an important part.

"For us, it's being allied with a superpower, having influence over a superpower that we wouldn't have if we weren't such close allies," said Douglas Hurd, British foreign secretary during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. "I don't think it's wise to put too much weight on sentiment, this 'shared culture' and 'shared language' and this sort of thing.

"It really boils down to what different prime ministers have seen to be in our national interest, and what Tony Blair sees as our self-interest is abundantly clear. That carries risks here at home."

In fact, Blair's stance has been opposed not only by the public at large but by many people within his own left-leaning Labor Party, including ministers within his Cabinet. His biggest supporters have been from the opposition Conservative Party.

In Britain's Parliament on Wednesday, Blair spent much of the time devoted to Prime Minister's Questions, in which he is routinely criticized and taken to task by Conservatives, being heckled and questioned by members of his own party.

Labor's back-benchers yelled, "Who's next?"

Calm, as always, Blair responded: "After we deal with Iraq we do, yes, through the United Nations, have to confront North Korea about its weapons program."

"When do we stop?" yelled one Labor member.

"We stop when the threat to our security is properly and fully dealt with," Blair replied.

Those security threats have become a common theme in Blair's argument for committing more than 30,000 troops to a war against Iraq. Bush is deeply unpopular in Britain, and the common refrain here is that Blair is his "poodle," loyally but blindly following his lead.

Blair has responded by focusing his arguments for a military buildup in terms of British interest, contending that his country, as much as any other in the world, is threatened by terrorists and the possibility that Hussein will provide them with weapons of mass destruction.

But at every opportunity, such as at a recent speech to his Foreign Ministry, he argues that Britain's most powerful place in the world is standing beside the United States.

That is partly because Blair is a "conviction politician" and was revolted by the attacks on Washington and New York, his aides say, but it is also because Britain has long found itself an island politically as well as geographically. Americans may consider Britain part of Europe, but the British refer to Europe as France, Germany and the other mainland states.

Blair's stated political goal has been to be the No. 1 ally of the United States. That helps achieve a second goal, to play a pivotal role in Europe.

Germany and France took stands at odds with the United States on the subject of Iraq, but Blair broke ranks with them, instead aligning himself with Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Portugal.

Yesterday, the leaders of those countries issued a letter calling for unity with the United States.

"Europe has no quarrel with the Iraqi people," the letter said. "Our goal is to safeguard world peace and security by ensuring that this regime gives up its weapons of mass destruction. Our governments have a common responsibility to this threat. Failure to do so would be nothing less than negligent to our own citizens and to the wider world."

"Blair's really on a tightrope, because he has this goal of bringing Britain closer to continental Europe, which is now running up against his other desire, which is having Britain support the United States," said Joanna Speak, a professor of war studies at King's College. "I think Blair has thought he'd be able to bring Europe along with him. I think it's only recently that he's realized that may not be possible."

That is not stopping him from trying. On Iraq, he has tried to serve as a bridge between Bush and European leaders, as he served during the weeks preceding the war in Afghanistan.

At a news conference yesterday in Spain, Blair said: "The only people who will truly gain by Europe and the United States drifting apart are people who don't have the best interest in mind for Europe and the United States."

Historically, relations between Britain and the United States have been best when their leaders have come from the same side of the political center, Labor and Democrat or Conservative and Republican. And when Bush took office two years ago, he showed little interest in Blair, making a meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox his first with a foreign leader and looking to Germany as his primary European partner.

"The perception here is that we were out again and Germany was in," said Speak. "September 11th and Blair's immediate response were our entry back in. Bush views support for the United States as an acid test, and Britain passed."

"I believe Blair was genuinely appalled by September 11," said Clarke. "He didn't just see it as a political issue. He is a man with a moral compass - whether you agree with it or not - and his view was, 'We stick with the United States through thick and thin.' It was good fortune that what the moral compass pointed to was also in the direction, politically, that he wanted to take Britain."

While the possibility of war looms and Blair plays an increasingly prevalent role on the world stage, he is not overly popular in Britain, and not only because of his stance on Iraq.

"The risk to Blair is, he's spending political capital on Iraq that he might need because of some of these other problems," including his unpopular intention to push Britain to adopt the euro, the common European currency, said Peter Hall, a professor at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

"More basic than that is, right now he has enough broad support overall to avoid a leadership challenge. If the war goes badly, that support erodes. The political risk is very real."

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