Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, April 20, 2006

  Tony Blair: Once more into the breach

Last week it seemed for a few moments like Britain might actually act as a critical brake upon Bush & Co.'s dalliance with nuclear warfare. On Sunday week, Foreign Minister Jack Straw ridiculed the idea on the BBC.

The idea that Washington could launch a nuclear strike against Iran was "completely nuts", Straw said in an interview on BBC television....

Military action against Iran was "not on the agenda", Straw said....Straw said Britain, Washington's closest European ally, would not accept a pre-emptive strike against Iran, adding: "I am as certain as I can be sitting here that neither would the United States."...

"There is no smoking gun ... We can't be certain about Iran's intentions and that is therefore not a basis on which anybody would gain authority for military action," he said. Reuters.

That was welcome news, even if Straw's denial sounded just a trace too vehement. I could easily have imagined Tony Blair, with his standing in British opinion polls having dropped even lower than Bush's numbers in the U.S., going along for one last joy ride with that nutty White House gang.

It's always a mistake, however, to assume that Blair will finally do the right thing. And this week, he's busy demonstrating again that he doesn't have to be sensible. The Independent sounds the alarm, Blair and Straw at odds over US action in Iran:

Jack Straw has warned Cabinet colleagues that it would be illegal for Britain to support the United States in military action against Iran. But Tony Blair has backed President George Bush by warning that ruling out military action would send out a "message of weakness" to Iran.

Differences opened up yesterday between Mr Blair and the Foreign Secretary over growing alarm in the US at the refusal of Mr Bush to rule out military action. Mr Straw said on BBC Radio 4 that it was "inconceivable" that Britain would support a military strike against Tehran. Four hours later, Mr Blair refused to go that far when challenged to do so at Prime Minister's questions by the former minister, Michael Meacher.

Mr Blair accused Iran of fostering international terrorism, and said young people were signing up to be suicide bombers directed at US and UK targets. " I do not think this is the time to send a message of weakness," he said.

Mr Straw has told ministerial colleagues he does not believe that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, would approve the legality of British action, because Iran does not pose a direct threat to Britain.

Blair would have trouble with Labour MPs if he backs Bush, the paper also reports. So are you encouraged by that? Neither am I.

This split inside Blair's Cabinet, if real, is eerily reminiscent of what transpired in the year before the Iraq invasion. American commentators have rightly noted the parallels between the Bush administration's dismissive comments in 2002 about reports of secretive planning to invade Iraq, and their behavior now as new reports swirl regarding Iran. The parallels in Britain are starting to look equally strong. It could be said that we're somewhat better informed about the situation in Britain, then and now, since British ministers have been more confrontational and outspoken in public than high-ranking members of the Bush administration.

Take for instance the record left behind by the late Robin Cook, one of the Cabinet ministers who resigned in protest against the invasion of Iraq. In the spring of 2002, he joined several other ministers in trying to dissuade, or prevent, Blair from committing Britain to Bush's war. This rebellion failed because Blair was intransigent and lorded it over the Cabinet. Yet the infighting at the time resembles what appears to be taking shape now over Iran, to judge by the report in The Independent.

Cook kept a personal diary in those years, which he published in late 2003 (with some later annotations added). I drew attention last year to this book, because of its usefulness for evaluating and supplementing leaked documents like the Downing Street memo. For my purposes now, it's enough to quote a few extracts from Cook's diary dating to that initial period of infighting within Blair's cabinet.

Thursday March 7: A real discussion at cabinet. Tony permitted us to have the debate on Iraq which David [Blunkett] and I had asked for. For the first time I can recall in five years, Tony was out on a limb.

David was first over the top. Being now home secretary he cunningly camped on the need for a proper legal authority for any action: "What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn't have a few months ago? Has anybody asked the legal opinion of the attorney-general, and what is he saying?"

Pat Hewitt lamented that we were expected to listen to US worries about Iraq when we could not get them to listen to us before slapping higher tariffs on our steel exports. "We are in danger of being seen as close to President Bush, but without any influence over President Bush."

I am told that in the old days prime ministers would sum up the balance of view in the discussion. This would be simple in the present case as all contributions pointed in one direction. However, Tony does not regard the cabinet as a place for decisions. Normally he avoids having discussions in cabinet until decisions are taken and announced to it.

Tony appeared totally unfazed at the fact that on this occasion the balance of discussion pointed strongly in the reverse direction of his intentions. Rather than attempt to sum up the discussion of this supreme body of collective government, he responded as if he was replying to a question-and-answer session from a party branch.

He was patient with us, but he was firm where he saw Britain's national interests lie: "I tell you that we must steer close to America. If we don't we will lose our influence to shape what they do."

This was the last cabinet meeting at which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war. I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic, but only Clare Short and I ever expressed frank doubts about the trajectory in which we were being driven.

Monday March 25: Among my old contacts in the Foreign Office I cannot find any who can convincingly demonstrate that something dramatic has changed in Iraq in recent months which would produce a justification for military action that was not there a year ago.

Thursday April 11: At cabinet Tony reported in full on his visit. Pat Hewitt spoke up bravely on the importance of UN cover for any military action on Iraq. "There will be a lot of tension among the Muslim communities in Britain if an attack on Iraq is seen as a unilateralist action. They would find it much easier to understand, and we would find it much easier to sell, if there was a specific agreement at the UN on the need for military action."

Tony characteristically refused to be boxed in. He regards the UN process as important but "we should not tie ourselves down to doing nothing unless the UN authorised it". Rather more alarmingly he said, "The time to debate the legal base for our action should be when we take that action."

To judge by Cook's account, Jack Straw was not at that time among the leaders of the rebellion against Blair's Iraq policy. (Months later, for what it's worth, Cook gives the impression that Straw had some doubts about the rush to war.) This time, however, he might well be leading the charge against the war-mongering in D.C.

What is perhaps most striking is the similarity between the main arguments used by each side, then and now. In 2002, Blair's opponents led with the argument that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal, and that Attorney General Goldsmith would have to rule in favor of invasion. Then, Blair countered that Britain needed to cooperate with the Bush administration, and setting any preconditions to that cooperation would just hinder Britain and undermine its national interests.

Now in 2006, Straw seems to be pressing the legal issue, and arguing that Attorney General Goldsmith will not rule in favor of invasion. Blair is countering that Britain's national interests are at stake in confronting Iran, and taking any options `off the table' would weaken the U.K.'s position.

In other words, here we go again. Chiz.


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