Bush, Iraq and the British Response: What's In It for Blair?

When recruiting allies to a cause (in this case, war with Iraq), America must regard rebuff from Britain, America's staunchest ally, as the least propitious of signs.

When recruiting allies to a cause (in this case, war with Iraq), America must regard rebuff from Britain, America's staunchest ally, as the least propitious of signs. Thus, Washington is closely monitoring the reaction of both the British establishment as well as popular opinion to the case that the Bush Administration has laid out vis-à-vis Iraq.


Not surprisingly, the critical wing of the British media and the old Left of the Labour Party have acted in character. When Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced support for the United States in a speech to the Trade Unions Congress, he was met with angry silence. Columnist John O'Farrell put forward in the Guardian an analogy between President Bush, "a scary American president [breaking] through the flimsy doors into the UN's cockpit", and the perpetrators of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Robert Fisk observed how struck he was by the fact that President Bush, speaking from the podium in the General Assembly, appeared physically very small--noting that smallness of stature was a characteristic of Napoleon and several other unnamed less savory historical figures. Yet, in their very shrillness--comparing Bush to the terrorist hijackers and Hitler--the voices of outright dissent suggest the less than central position they occupy on the spectrum of British opinion.


This does not suggest, however, that the rest of the political spectrum in Britain has universally endorsed the President's case. Intelligent and measured questions appeared in all the major London broadsheets, and parliamentarians, including members of the historically Atlanticist Conservative Party, had questions of their own. Within the Conservative Party, an Arabist bloc, led by the Shadow Foreign Minister Alan Duncan and former Defense Minister Nicholas Soames, calls for caution, while a nationalist Right states somewhat more vociferously that the UK should not engage in military action unless there is a direct threat to British interests.


Certainly, the British public and media give President Bush high marks for having taken the case about Iraq to the world's most broadly constituted international organization. Though the United Nations enjoys greater respect in Scandinavia, its prestige in Britain nonetheless runs high. Even the Independent, which rapidly asserted itself after September 11, 2001 as the most unrestrained opponent of the United States within the major UK media, admitted that Bush made a powerful case when he underscored eleven years of Iraqi disregard for Security Council resolutions. Some of the praise may be as much on a procedural as a substantive scorecard, but it suggests nonetheless the positive influence the UN speech has exercised over UK opinion.


However, the British like the Chinese, French and Russians are not willing to grant a blank check to the United States. At the core doubts remain over whether the factual allegations of Iraqi misconduct presented by the United States have been fully corroborated. From academics at Oxford University to taxi drivers in London to corporate lawyers and investment bankers in the City, the evidentiary question arises repeatedly in discussions about Iraq. Politicians-running the gamut from Liberal Democratic Party leader Charles Kennedy to Tory backbencher Bill Wiggin-have all raised the question of proof. This points to a real gap in the administration's public diplomacy. A needed concomitant to the President's widely admired presentation to the UN is an aggressive presentation of the facts favoring action. Until the administration's warnings sink in about Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the skepticism, in both the pubs and the common rooms, may be expected to linger.


Professional polling also reveals that UK residents do not agree on military action against Iraq. MORI, the major UK-based polling organization, has released a poll (taken in early September) that reveals that over half British subjects disapprove of the way Tony Blair is handling the British response to the war on terror. Consistent with the general applause across the spectrum of media for the President's decision to take the case against Iraq to the United Nations, 69% of Britons indicated to MORI that the UK should involve itself in action against Iraq only if the UN supports such action.