Britain's obstacle

How much longer can Tony Blair and his ministers accept being led by a U.S. administration that denigrates everything they say they stand for?

Published September 8, 2004 2:57PM (EDT)

Forget all the arguments about Iraq, we are told. We have had [the reports by Lords] Hutton and Butler, Tony Blair won't apologize for misleading the public and Parliament, and it is time to move on. But how can we possibly move on? The invasion of Iraq has cost the lives of more than 1,000 American and more than 60 British soldiers. Put on one side the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction and the fact that Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed less of a threat to its neighbors -- let alone the West -- last year than when Western governments were supplying his regime with WMD precursors right up to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

For Blair, as well as George W. Bush and his neocons, an invasion of Iraq would topple a vicious dictator, help the "war on terror" by preventing nasty weapons from getting into the hands of al-Qaida sympathizers and promote democracy in the Middle East and neighboring central Asia.

We have just witnessed the latest manifestation of the so-called war on terror in the Caucasus. Further east, across the oil-rich Caspian, lies Uzbekistan, where the U.S. turns a blind eye to serious human rights abuses in return for military bases for the same war on terror. They were initially used to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, where elections are due next month -- an event the U.S. has done little to prepare for, wary of upsetting warlords, while leaving responsibility for security to its European NATO allies, which are unwilling or unable to provide it.

In Iraq -- described without irony by the Bush administration as the new "front line" in the war on terror -- the U.S. has installed a government of placemen. As respected Iraq expert Toby Dodge observes in Survival, the International Institute for Strategic Studies journal, it has "a high proportion of formerly exiled politicians in the cabinet and a prime minister closely associated with the intelligence arms of both the British and American governments."

The insurgency, he writes, is a homegrown phenomenon, springing from the political and security failures of the occupation. Foreign troops, he suggests, will be needed "for many years to come if anarchy is to be avoided." Dodge adds pointedly: "In the 20s and 30s, the hegemonic power seeking to recreate Iraq was Britain. The 1920 revolt made the occupation extremely unpopular with the British people and led to a change in government in London. The result was that state-building in Iraq was sacrificed at the altar of British domestic politics."

Blair insists his government will not walk away from countries it has helped occupy. The bigger question is how he will achieve his stated objectives of promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East (as well as the road map to a peace deal between Israel and Palestine), fighting poverty, and giving a much-needed boost to a U.N.-focused internationalism. All this would help, much more than military occupation, in the fight against terrorism.

In a telling comment last week, Mai Yamani, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, described the annual get-together at Oxford University of the Project for Democracy Studies in Arab Countries. The participants, she wrote in the International Herald Tribune, represented the "lost resources of an Arab world that is fast becoming isolated by illiteracy, ignorance, and repression."

A new generation, "denied the opportunity to participate in a range of democratic institutions or other vehicles for public self-expression, is finding more dangerous outlets for its passions." Yamani quoted a Saudi researcher at an English university as remarking: "It's easier for a young Arab to blow himself up than sweep outside his house. He doesn't feel he belongs to anything."

It is hard not to conclude that one of the greatest obstacles to the kind of better world Blair says he wants -- one with less cause for terrorism, even if terrorists will always be around -- is the Bush administration, and notably the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. They have consistently dismissed British interests and embarrassed a prime minister who has attached himself so closely to the president with such little reward.

What did Blair think when delegates at last week's Republican Convention booed speakers who mentioned the U.N.? How much longer can Blair, or his ministers, accept to be led by a U.S. administration that denigrates everything they say they stand for? Asked at a press conference Tuesday whether the war on terror can be won, Blair replied: "We can win it and I believe ultimately we will win it. But it is going to require emphasis not only on security, but tackling other issues as well." There is absolutely no sign he is succeeding in tackling them, not least because his closest ally, the U.S. president, is simply not interested.

By Richard Norton-Taylor

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