Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, May 05, 2006

  Firing the Foreign Secretary: On to Iran?

I try to comment on news that's getting overlooked by the mainstream blogosphere, since there's little point in trying to tell you what you already know. True, my last post was about L'Affaire Colbert, the most over-examined incident since Suez. Generally, though, I do try to be useful by turning my attention to the off-beat, remote, or rebarbative story. For a long time I've had one eye cocked toward British politics, mainly in the hope that Tony Blair would come crashing down like some giant poplar tree, taking with him half of George Bush's canopy while shaking the American political landscape.

Well it hasn't happened yet, but hope remains. I was going to say that a major story broke today, which has been little covered in the MSB. No, not that story. I mean Blair's Cabinet shake-up the day after Labour suffered humiliating losses in local elections. Some of it was pretty trivial stuff, viewed from this side of the Atlantic, but there was also a bombshell: Blair demoted long-time ally and Iraq war-hawk, Jack Straw, from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the Commons.

Americans should be very worried.

The British newspapers are full of speculation about what prompted the demotion, which puts Blair in a pretty bad light. For one thing, Blair has replaced Straw with Margaret Beckett, a real plodder. Commentators agree, Blair gave Straw the shove because of factors A plus either X, Y, or Z. There's no agreement about which of the latter factors came into play, and I won't discuss them because they're subsidiary causes at most. Virtually everybody agrees about factor 'A', though: It's Iran.

Last month, when Sy Hersh revealed that the White House was contemplating a nuclear attack upon Iran, all hell broke loose in British politics as well. Straw made strong statements in public decrying the idea, for example stating that it was "completely nuts".

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.

Mister Bush and his "people" know darn well that they'd need assistance from Britain to pull off a nuclear attack on Iran. So Straw's immediate stand against the idea was reassuring to those of us who feared that Bush is just reckless enough to try this stunt. Regrettably, within a few days Tony Blair was busy pulling the rug out from under his Foreign Minister.

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.

That didn't look encouraging. I wrote up my thoughts at the time, arguing in detail that Straw appeared to be leading a faction within the British Cabinet opposed to backing Bush's beligerence toward Iran, while Blair was pushing back hawkishly. What especially disturbed me was the nature of the rhetoric each side was using. They seemed to be reprising the very same arguments that had been deployed in 2002 over Iraq, when several Cabinet ministers had tried to prevent Blair from dragging Britain along behind Bush's aggressive policies. In 2002, the Bush skeptics were led by David Blunkett and Robin Cook. Straw was in the Blair camp then, it seems, but by 2006 he had decided that he needed to take a stand against this madness.

The interpretation I advanced last month stands up still, I regret to say, so I will not repeat it here. It's sufficient to say that even then it was already apparent, I think, that Jack Straw and Tony Blair were on a collision course over whether to back Bush & Co. to the hilt in yet another debacle. Today Tony Blair decided to strike pre-emptively against Straw, using the cover of a Cabinet shake-up to toss overboard the biggest obstacle to British support for attacking Iran.

Why do British journalists agree that it was the face-off over the Cheney doctrine (Diplomacy is the failure to engage in war.) that led to Straw's demotion? Well, for one thing the White House put in a bad word about Straw with Blair.

His [Straw's] fate was sealed when the White House called Mr Blair and asked why the foreign secretary kept saying these things ["completely nuts", etc.]. In any case, Mr Straw had boxed himself in on Iran to the extent that he would have had to resign if a military strike became a reality.

The last is a nice touch. The information in that paragraph, of course, comes from somebody close to Blair. From the Prime Minister's perspective, it's perfectly reasonable to allege that Straw had undermined himself by ruling out an insane policy. Once the madness breaks out, Straw would naturally have to resign anyhow--so better just to go now.

And it turns out that Blair has indeed been hounding Straw to shut up and fall in line behind Mister Bush and Mister Cheney.

But Mr Blair, who sees Iran as the world's biggest threat, does not agree with his former foreign secretary. The prime minister argues that, at the very least, nothing should be ruled out in order to keep Iran guessing. Downing Street phoned the Foreign Office several times to suggest Mr Straw stop going on the BBC Today programme and ruling it out so categorically.

Are you worried yet? If so, pass right on over the next few paragraphs because you will not like what is coming in them. Last August I noticed a commentary in Britain by Richard Ingrams in The Observor:

In all the tributes to [the recently deceased Robin Cook], I was unable to discover why it was that this brilliant man, acclaimed by colleagues and obituarists as a Foreign Secretary of exceptional ability, was relieved of his post in 2001.

But recent books by James Naughtie and New Statesman editor John Kampfner both suggest that Cook was not popular in Washington, where he made no secret of his aversion, in particular to Vice-President Dick Cheney, a feeling that was mutual.

As I commented at the time (Did Cheney help to get Robin Cook demoted?), Ingrams made a reasonably strong case for the idea that the White House, Cheney in particular, pressed Blair to demote then Foreign Minister, Robin Cook (a longtime friend of Blair's), because Cook seemed to be resistent to the new Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. Blair, it appears, was willing to be pushed around.

And this month? A new batch of leaves, but the same old foliage for Mr. Blair. When will Labour clear this rotting, hollow trunk of a polician out of the way? Couldn't Britain's tawdry policies benefit from a little more light shining in?

Labourites are thinking the same thing today, and they may actually take some action to remove Blair, at long last. The Guardian

Ominously for Mr Blair, backing for the prime minister to agree an "orderly transition" soon is also coming from former Blairites such as Nick Raynsford and John Denham. Mr Raynsford said: "I now think it's going to be necessary to set out a timetable for the change of leadership, though I do not think we should be specific or seek to impose one. But the objective of stability for ministers to deliver on key policies will not be possible if there is uncertainty over the leadership. Ministers will be continually looking over their shoulders."

If Mr Blair does not bow to the pressure backbench MPs intend to publish a letter, possibly by the end of next week, with as many as 75 signatures calling on him to agree the transition or face a formal challenge. Mr Brown called the election result - Labour lost 306 seats and 18 councils - a "warning shot" that showed the party needed to renew itself in the same way as it had in the 80s. His aides said he would be speaking to Mr Blair over the weekend about the need for renewal and an orderly transition.

The prime minister will hold a press conference on Monday and address querulous Labour MPs later that night. Despite the pincer movement against him, there is a defiant mood in Downing Street... But Mr Brown believes the defeats reflect an irretrievable loss of trust in the prime minister.

We've been watching for a full year as disaffected and often angry Labour MPs have threatened repeatedly to put a stop to Blair's crazy, Thatcherite rampage through British politics. Yet, though Blair is as unpopular in his country as Bush is here, and just as battered by scandal, he is still standing, defiant if cornered.

I do not have a high opinion of the courage or good sense of the Labour MPs who have allowed this man to drag Britain down, paired with George Bush in folly and arrogance. Ordinarily I would hold out little hope that they'll do any better this time.

But on the other hand, Blair wielded the knives against ministerial colleagues today in a way that shocked many in his party. Most shocked of all, it appears, is his Chancellor Gordon Brown

The shake-up fuelled tension between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who was not consulted about the changes outside his Treasury team. The Chancellor struck a markedly different tone to Blairites by describing the council results as " a warning shot" and calling for "renewal".

Brown has been waiting much too patiently for years for Blair to resign, so that Brown may take over as Prime Minister. Brown has hitched his wagon to Blair, supposing that loyalty would benefit him, and refusing many opportunities to give Blair a shove into retirement. But yesterday, Blair sacked or demoted several of Brown's closest allies, and installed in their places Blair's own loyalists. Brown may be a fool, but he'd have to be a ninny not to realize that this means political war.

The initial signs are that he's gathering his own followers and trying to force Blair to admit that his innings are over. There's no guarantee that a Brown government (even if it can take over in time) would be less hawkish over Iran than Blair intends to be. But we may hold onto the hope that he would bring back his new ally, Jack Straw, as Foreign Secretary. Sadly, it is now too late to bring back Robin Cook.


  • Here is an article on the demotion of Straw in tomorrow's Sunday Independent that seems to confirm much of what I wrote on yesterday.

    Jack Straw's fate was sealed in a phone call from the White House to Tony Blair last month, according to the former foreign secretary's friends.

    They say President George Bush was furious that Mr Straw said it was "nuts" to use nuclear weapons against Iran, an option reported to be under active consideration in Washington.....

    But it was the looming crisis in Iran that is being blamed by Mr Straw's friends for his demise. Mr Blair is said to regard the country's nuclear ambitions as the greatest threat to the world and had grown weary of Mr Straw's efforts to block any possibility of a military strike. Margaret Beckett, his successor, can expect to be asked whether she too regards it as "inconceivable" that force could be used against Tehran at the first opportunity. The new Foreign Secretary flies to New York tomorrow [Monday] to meet Ms Rice and discuss a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran.

    The article also anticipates that Straw will use his position as Leader of the Commons obtain revenge on Blair, in due course.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 8:29 PM  

  • In his Monday press conference, Blair denied that Straw's demotion had anything to do with Iran. Here is the Daily Mail.

    During the press conference, Mr Blair was asked why he removed Jack Straw from the Foreign Office.

    He vehemently denied the decision had anything with Mr Straw's statement that Britain would not be involved in any possible attack on Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme.

    He said: "The idea that I moved Jack because of Iran is rubbish.

    "What he will be doing as Leader of the House is far more than the traditional role.

    "Any notion that it's linked to a discussion about invading Iran - which incidentally we're not going to do - is utterly absurd."

    Mr Blair said he had spoken to Mr Straw after last year's general election when they agreed that he would stand down as Foreign Secretary "in the not too distant future".

    Mr Straw had suggested to the Prime Minister, who agreed, that Leader of the House was "the right position for him to oversee the domestic programme in Parliament".

    Mr Blair said it was "rubbish" to connect his move with Iran, his relationship with the US or his insistence on a EU constitution referendum.

    So there you have it--multiple and competing explanations offered by Blair as to how he came to demote Straw. Blair indicated he wanted a change a year ago; Straw wanted to move to he Commons. When people offer more than one explanation for something controversial they've done, I find it usually indicates they're lying.

    In this instance, Blair also summons two absurdities. First, that it was not really a demotion for Straw. Second, that this was in the offing since last May. Very reminiscent of the preposterous explanation Bush offered for the sudden resignation of Porter Goss--that it had been agreed to months ago.

    My inference, then, is the Blair is lying and that Straw's statements about Iran are very much part of the reason he was sacked.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 3:47 PM  

  • Nope, the Labour MPs have failed once again to stand up to Blair, as it seems from this BBC report about their meeting with Blair on Monday evening.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 5:20 PM  

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