The Magazine

Perfidious America?

Tony Blair deserves better from American than a medal.

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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AS TONY BLAIR heads for America to collect his Congressional Gold Medal this week, he must be thinking, "With America for a friend, I surely don't need any enemies." He gambled that his new friend, George W. Bush, would see loyalty as a two-way street. So far, he is losing his bet.

Britain's prime minister knew that he was taking an enormous political risk when he decided to join Washington in attacking Iraq. The left of his own Labour party was opposed to the war: Many in that faction did not see Saddam Hussein as a threat, others felt that action without U.N. sanction was illegal, and still others were unwilling to back America, no matter what the merits of the issue.

Blair's party opponents number more than the usual gang that the government calls the "awkward squad." If we don't tally the so-called "payroll party"--those members of parliament appointed by the prime minister to government positions that bring extra pay and perks--the antiwar faction claims almost 40 percent of the Labour seats in parliament.

Add to that the one million protesters that turned out for an antiwar rally in February, the largest political march in Britain's history. This mélange of pacifists, anti-Israel Muslims, assorted anti-Semites, Bush haters, and folks genuinely convinced that Britain's interests in stopping the spread of terrorism to their country were ill-served by an attack on Iraq, was too large to be dismissed as of little consequence by a politician with Blair's sensitive political antennae.

But Blair persevered, for the simple reason, as he often told me, that it was the right thing to do--right because Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction (more on that in a moment) posed a threat to world order; right because, as he laid out in a speech in Chicago several years ago, the free world has an obligation to intervene if a local tyrant is committing serious crimes against his own people; and right because it is in Britain's interests to preserve its special relationship with the United States.

Now the political bill is coming due. As Blair prepares to receive his medal and to address a joint session of Congress, his popularity at home has sunk to its lowest level in years. Indeed, polls show that his party now trails even the woebegone Tories, and that the prime minister himself is no longer trusted by the majority of the British people.

In part this is due to the failure of some of his domestic policies: Crime is seen as rising, the transportation system is a mess, the National Health Service shows little sign of improving despite a massive infusion of money, taxes are up. Not exactly a prescription for rising popularity.

But in part, too, Blair's current problems stem from the coalition's failure to find weapons of mass destruction. The prime minister had told the House of Commons that Saddam had such weapons, and, in what now seems an unfortunate turn of phrase, the ability to use them against coalition forces on 45-minutes' notice. Although hammered at public hearings by two cabinet members who resigned in protest over the war, thereby staking out positions to the left of Blair in anticipation of his voluntary or forced retirement, Blair and his aides were found innocent last week of the charge of deliberately "sexing up" intelligence reports to justify military action. Those charges were made by a BBC commentator, allegedly based on a single anonymous source within the security services. If the charges of doctoring security reports had been upheld, Blair might well have been forced to resign. Now that they have been rejected by a parliamentary committee, many are calling for the resignation of the director-general of BBC (the Baghdad Broadcasting Company, to students of its war coverage, which persists in mispronouncing the name of our deputy secretary of defense as "Volfovitz," among its many other sins against honest news coverage).

Unlike President Bush, Tony Blair cannot count on public patience with our failure so far to uncover weapons of mass destruction, since the "regime change" at which Americans are taking satisfaction was never even hinted at by the prime minister as justification of his decision to put British troops in harm's way. Worse still, there is considerable public anger at the "friendly fire" deaths of British soldiers, anger that bubbles up even in conversations with Brits friendly to America. (One cab driver asked me, "How come British forces didn't inflict any friendly fire deaths on Americans?")