If only he would listen, this could be Blair's finest hour Britain's envoys want the PM to stall Bush's plans for war
By Richard Norton-Taylor
The Guardian - Monday January 6, 2003
Telegrams from British embassies and missions around the world are urging
Tony Blair to step up pressure on President Bush to pull back from a war
against Iraq. In what amounts to a collective cri de coeur, our envoys -
congregating in Whitehall today for an unprecedented Foreign Office
brainstorming session - are warning of the potentially devastating
consequences of such an adventure, including its impact on a greater
threat than Saddam Hussein: al-Qaida-inspired terrorism.
The warnings are not just coming from our envoys and defence attaches in
Arab capitals. They are also, I am told, coming from Washington. This,
our diplomats suggest, could be one of Blair's - and Britain's - finest
hours, a unique opportunity to make a constructive contribution to world
affairs. They also know, not least from American opinion polls, that the
Bush administration needs Britain onside. Our contribution would be a
token one in military terms, but significant politically. That gives
It is hard to find anyone in Whitehall who supports a war against Iraq
and who is not deeply concerned about the influence of the hawks around
Bush. They cannot say so in public, of course.
Whitehall gives Blair the credit for helping to persuade Bush to go down
the UN route - a prime example of what Whitehall describes as Britain
"punching above its weight". But this should be put into perspective.
Richard Falk, Princeton's emeritus professor of international law, notes
in the latest issue of Le Monde Diplomatique: "This belated recourse to
the UN does not fool many people outside the US, and is not very
persuasive to Americans themselves. It is obvious that Bush is no friend
of the UN, and only sought UN approval for US policy to defuse domestic
opposition to blatant unilateralism."
Falk addresses a key issue: "For the US to insist in voting for
resolution 1441 on 8 November, that the UN act as an enforcement agency
by reviving weapons inspection, and in so onerous a form that it almost
ensures a breakdown, is to enlist the UN in the dirty work of
It is a key issue because UN security council backing for military action
will be seized on by ministers to convince those, including Labour MPs
and bishops, who have grave doubts about a war against Iraq. The fact is
that the security council has always considered itself above any tenet of
In his biography, The Politics of Diplomacy, former US secretary of state
James Baker shamelessly admits how, before the 1991 Gulf war, he met his
security council counterparts "in an intricate process of cajoling,
extracting, threatening, and occasionally buying votes". America's
relative power, and its willingness to use it, has increased over the
past 12 years. James Paul, head of Global Policy Forum, a
non-governmental body that monitors the UN, says: "The capacity of the US
to bring to heel virtually any country in the world is unbelievable."
The US is corrupting the security council by bribing its permanent
members - Russia with dollars, China with trade concessions, France and
Britain (if it needs any carrots) with the prospect of oil concessions.
And Turkey will be amply rewarded if it allows the US to use its bases
for an assault on Iraq. Is this how international relations are going to
be conducted among the world's most powerful countries in future? Is it
that difficult for Blair to go down in history as the leader who
prevented a potentially disastrous war fought, as one Whitehall official
puts it, simply to prevent Bush from having egg over his face?
What kind of country meekly succumbs to demands for war dictated by
domestic party politics, even those of its closest ally? Where is the
evidence that Iraq is lying about its weapons of mass destruction?
Worried Whitehall officials ask: even if evidence is found, and Saddam
Hussein is discovered to have lied, is it not better to keep the UN
inspectors - the best deterrence against the use or development of such
weapons - on the ground?
One lie ministers could nail is that put about by elements in Washington
and Israel - that there are links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
British and American intelligence insist there is no evidence of such a
link, yet ministers are frightened to say so for fear of upsetting
Though there is no love lost between the Iraqi regime and Islamist
fundamentalists, an Anglo-American attack on Iraq is likely to attract
more recruits to al-Qaida, thereby increasing the risk of terrorist
strikes against British and American interests, as well as the
destabilisation of other secular Arab states and the west's Middle East
So we come to double standards. While the US demands that Baghdad abide
by UN resolutions, it ignores Israel's refusal to do so over the occupied
territories. While the US pursues a diplomatic course towards North Korea
- a country which has thrown out UN nuclear inspectors - it threatens
military action against Iraq, where UN inspectors are busy on the ground.
And while the US says international inspectors must investigate the rest
of the world to ensure they are not producing chemical or biological
weapons, Washington rejects such inspections in the US.
We know, too, that the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein has little to do
with democracy. Despite public utterances in support of democratic change
in Iraq, Richard Haas, former director of Middle East affairs in
Washington's national security council, has admitted that US policy "is
to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime". There are those in the
Israeli government and Bush administration who argue that the fall of
Saddam would encourage the populations of other Arab states to get rid of
their undemocratic governments, make peace with Israel and embrace
Our diplomats and military commanders are clinging to the hope that
pressure on Iraq from the build-up of American military force in the Gulf
will lead to an "implosion" of Saddam Hussein's regime without a war.
They want the organs of the Iraqi state, including the Republican Guard,
to remain in place, to maintain law and order with the help of American
and British forces and prevent the oil-rich nation's disintegration.
But even if that scenario does come off, it will not address the
fundamental questions - about the future conduct of relations between
states, the role of the UN, international law, peace in the Middle East,
disarmament, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - being
asked behind the scenes in Whitehall. Since officials can't talk openly,
it is up to MPs to force ministers to give answers.
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor