Blair finds nothing to crow about

Sun Foreign Staff

LONDON - The ways the U.S. and British governments have handled news surrounding the capture of Saddam Hussein could hardly be more different, and with good reason: While the accomplishment has given an instant and significant boost to President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair's political fortunes continue to be hampered by the situation in Iraq.

Hussein's humiliation has been nearly the only topic on Britain's 24-hour news channels since the story broke, and yesterday most newspapers devoted their entire front page to his capture.

But until U.S. troops found the fallen Iraqi dictator Saturday, his disappearance was only one issue among many - and not the most important - that contributed to continued opposition to the war and Blair's willingness to align a largely unwilling nation with U.S. policy on Iraq.

Chief among the criticisms here for both the president and prime minister is the coalition's failure to locate weapons of mass destruction, whose purported existence was sold - particularly on this side of the Atlantic Ocean - as the primary reason for going to war.

"Assuming Saddam doesn't lead everyone to a big pile of anthrax, any boost for Blair is going to be extremely short-term," said Nick Gilby, a political analyst for MORI, Britain's largest independent polling firm.

"In another month's time, I think you could see his approval ratings as low as they've been, Saddam notwithstanding."

Next month, an independent judicial investigation called the Hutton Inquiry is expected to produce a report on Blair's claims that Hussein was capable of launching chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.

The investigation was prompted by the suicide of a British weapons expert, David Kelly, who slit his wrists after Blair's government exposed him as the anonymous source for radio reports questioning the weapons claim.

The report is widely expected to be critical of Blair's government and, barring any change in the coalition's failure to find such weapons, will again underscore that the prime minister's primary reason for going to war has so far turned out to be unfounded.

The failure to find the weapons is a much larger issue in Britain than in the United States, and it has cost Blair dearly.

He was once the most popular prime minister in British history, but his ratings tumbled when he aligned himself with Bush. Last month only 32 percent of Britons approved of his performance in office. He has yet to recover.

That might be part of the reason that while L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S.-appointed administrator in Iraq, announced triumphantly that "We got him," and President Bush spoke of the "winning side" of the conflict, Blair's announcement that Hussein had been captured came in almost somber tones and with a message that it was time for Sunni and Shiite alike in Iraq to pull together, that past trespasses would be forgiven of those who would now work to improve the country.

And while unidentified members of the Bush administration were telling reporters that Hussein was talkative and cooperating to a degree, Blair and his Cabinet stressed even more than the president that the war is far from over and that the capture should not be mistaken as a sign the fighting in Iraq will end any time soon.

Perhaps trying to blunt any criticism that might come in the days and weeks ahead stemming from continued failures to find weapons of mass destruction, even though the man responsible for their creation has been captured, Blair's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told reporters there was little hope of Hussein providing information about them.

"I'm not holding my breath for any confession statement," Straw said.

Fielding questions from Parliament after car bombs exploded in Baghdad, Blair also stressed, as he did Sunday in announcing Hussein's capture, that more soldiers are likely to die.

"As we have seen yet again today, the terrorists and Saddam's sympathizers will continue and, though small in number and in support, their terrorist tactics will still require vigilance, dedication and determination," the prime minister said.

He spent most of his time during the question-and-answer session, though, talking about Britain's need to help forge a European constitution, stressing that it would help to create jobs and to sustain the country's economy.

"I think what Blair recognizes is that while having Saddam still free when elections come would be a very potent argument for the ineffectual nature of British and American military action, capturing Saddam, politically speaking, only takes away a negative for Blair but it doesn't create a positive," said Glen Rangwala, a political science professor at the University of Cambridge.

"So you see in his approach more a tone of, 'We're getting the job done, as we said we would,' but he's not going to show any joy connected with going to war."

Under Britain's system, Blair must stand for re-election in 2006, but he is widely expected to call for a vote in 2005. Despite his reduced popularity, he is still considered the favorite, but he is seen as far more vulnerable than prior to the war, particularly with signs that his opposition conservative party is coalescing around Michael Howard, its new leader.

The conservatives, though, also supported the war - the real opposition came from liberal democrats and Blair's own Labor Party - but continued focus on the war is seen as hurting Blair not only because it was and still is unpopular but because it keeps the focus off reforming public services, the main concern of British voters.

The country's health care system needs work; its universities are strapped for cash; its rail system continues to be inferior to that in almost any part of Europe; and gun crimes have been increasing at an alarming rate.

"The war is going to be a concern as long as there are problems in Iraq and as long as British troops are there," said David Baker, a professor of political science and international studies at Britain's Warwick University.

"The next election, though, is going to be won or lost on how Britain is doing, what kind of shape the country is in."

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