10 - 16 October 2002
Issue No. 607
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
The crunch is comingTony Blair's gang-ho calls for going to war in Iraq did not square well within his own party, reports Gavin Bowd from London
"Of course we are in favour of a regime change in Iraq," said Prime Minister Blair several times last week. "But", he continued, with very British charm, there must first be the UN-sanctioned elimination of weapons of mass destruction. As his Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, left for a tour of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Iran, this agenda was reiterated.
By putting the UN and weapons inspection before the unilateral use of military force, Tony Blair has managed to stall protests that threatened to derail last week's Labour Party conference. Nearly half a million people had descended into the streets of London to "stop the war".
But the emphasis on the authority of the UN helped head off a revolt by trade union leaders and members of the cabinet, notably Clare Short and Robin Cook.
For the time being, the Labour leadership can bask in the rave reviews of Blair's speech setting out the future for "Bold Labour, not Old Labour".
A party that once sang with gusto "The Red Flag" and promised in its constitution the public ownership of the means of production, now swooned in the presence of former US President William Jefferson Clinton. As the former lover and employer of Miss Monica Lewinsky posed in a Blackpool McDonald's star-struck hacks concluded that Blair had pulled off another public relations triumph.
Indeed, Iraq seems to be causing more problems for Her Majesty's opposition. The leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, has been criticised by grandees of his moribund party for uncritical support of George W Bush: they say the time has come for a distinct British foreign policy.
The would-be leader of a future opposition, the Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy, seems to have had his thunder stolen by Blair's chameleon-like management of the Iraq question. It could be said that New Labour has always succeeded in queering the pitch of its opponents: gravitating towards the centre-right, as Blair's speech on modernisation confirmed, while palliating traditionalist discontent -- notably through pledges on public spending and attacking low-pay.
But, on Iraq, Blair is taking a gamble on events that he is hardly capable of controlling. The rapturous, awe-struck reception of Clinton illustrated the dangers lurking for New Labour. The former president's speech was a masterpiece of straddling ultimately incompatible positions. UN weapons inspections were praised for their effectiveness, but there were good words also for the bellicose line pursued by Bush and Blair. We were invited to "call Saddam's bluff". For more addled and doe- eyed members of the Blackpool audience, this meant support for the United Nations.
And yet, this was a speech from a man whose critique of "trickle-down economics" led not to the social-democratisation of the United States, but rather the hollowing out of Democrat liberalism. The dubious paean to the UN came from the man behind the abuse of UN inspectors for espionage activities, and the very unilateral Desert Fox campaign.
Such past misdemeanours may exercise the minds of Blair and Straw more than the titillating gossip about former Tory PM John Major and minor Minister Edwina Currie, whose sordid affair only served to remind many Britons why they gave New Labour a landslide victory in 1997.
If even their special guest at the Blackpool Conference is willing to take unilateral action, where does that leave the Republican Bush? Time is running out for a UN-sanctioned war against Saddam Hussein: midwinter is perfect for the fair complexions of the Western military. France, Russia and China are stalling a tough new resolution with annoying and self-serving insistence upon inspection and respect of national sovereignty. There will come a time when the US administration will have to act, brashly not Britishly, and end the stand-off between its Powells and Rumsfelds. There could be a UN resolution reminiscent of the Rambouillet accord in 1999: a deal meant to be unacceptable to Milosevic (although they do not want Saddam in The Hague).
Or the US will throw its hands up in exasperation at the UN and, glowing in the terrible moral fervour born on 11 september, go it alone. It is then that the brightest minds of New Labour will face their greatest task. They will be expected to participate in, or at least justify, a military operation against Baghdad that dwarfs Desert Fox and will entail yet another process of nation-building in a volatile region.
Or perhaps the UK will not be invited: the upper echelons of the British army are known to be in the dark about future military operations in the Gulf, and are currently more anxious about covering for a planned firefighters' strike. To be or not to be the closest military ally of Washington? It will be a time to be bold.
A guest to the moral imperialist feast or not, Blair will reflect on his remarks to Labour delegates about a "special relationship" forged in the fire of the "anti-Fascist" Second World War -- while neglecting the very imperial carnage of the First. Another crunch will have come for a party whose history has been peppered with splits, from the National Government of renegade Ramsay Macdonald to the formation of the Social Democrat Party and the eclipse of Old Labour by "Bold" Labour.
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