The Magazine

No Regrets for Blair

The combative prime minister defends his Iraq policy to a skeptical party.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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With that as background, the expectation in the smoke-filled corridors of the once-grand, now-slightly-seedy Victorian hotels that housed those delegates who can afford more than a modest bed-and-breakfast--yes, there are still smoke-filled corridors at party conferences here in Britain--was that Blair would duck the issue, perhaps following the lead of his popular chancellor, Gordon Brown, who the previous day had confined himself to notably unenthusiastic support of Blair's Iraq policy: An unassailable "it is right . . . to bring security and reconstruction to Iraq" was about as far as Brown was prepared to go, other than the obligatory plaudits for "the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces."

Blair didn't duck--no surprise to those who know that when he is convinced that he is right, as he is in the case of Iraq, the prime minister will display none of the ambivalence that seems to make him uncertain when confronting such issues as whether to attack crime or the causes of crime, or illegal entry into his country by people, some of whom are indeed poor, homeless, and wretched, but others of whom are not.

Blair confronted the poodle argument head on. Britain should confront terrorism "not because we are America's poodle, but because dealing with it will make Britain safer." He worries not about American unilateralism or the unwise use of its power. Instead, he fears America's "isolation, its walking away when we need America there engaged in the world, fighting to get world trade opened up, fighting to give hope to Africa, . . . staying with it in the Middle East."

This played to a fear that is emerging among many here who opposed the war. It goes something like this. The war was a mistake, and postwar Iraq is the quagmire that we predicted it would be. But if America is defeated, as it was in Vietnam, it will retreat into some form of isolationism for a generation. That will leave the world dangerously exposed to terrorists and unable to cope with disasters such as Kosovo, where Blair's importuning finally brought American power into play, ending the slaughter.

Whether Blair changed any minds is difficult to say. His speech was followed by seven-and-a-half minutes of applause. That may have been in response to leaflets urging the delegates to "Clap Tony to 10 More Years." It seems that at the party conferences of 2001 and 2002 he received "ovations" of two and two-and-a-half minutes, respectively. The leaflet concluded, "Labour Party Conference 2003: Let's make it three minutes. Remember: when Tony stops talking, keep on clapping."

They did, and then some. But their approbation extended only to two of the sentences Blair spoke on Iraq and America. The first was when Blair, who must know something that the rest of us don't, suggested that the United States is "changing its position for the future of the world, on climate change." The second was when he praised America for "telling Israel and the Palestinians: Don't let the extremists decide the fate of the peace process, when the only hope is two states living side by side in peace."

In Britain, the "two-states solution" is more often than not code for "ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinians." Some delegates didn't bother with code. Oona King, the much televised MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, condemned "terror on both sides," called for removal of the wall being constructed by the Israelis, said that "power lies with the Israelis and with power comes responsibility, so end the occupation now." Another delegate went further, calling for elimination of the veto in the U.N. Security Council so that resolutions condemning Israel might pass.

I know from personal talks that the prime minister doesn't use the "two-states solution" as code; but many of the delegates to this conference do, either from conviction or in recognition of the fact that many of the approximately two million Muslims living in Britain are concentrated in constituencies won by the Labour party, and outnumber by far the fewer than 300,000 British Jews. This is a country in which Muslims belonging to a group called al-Muhajiroun this year took the occasion of September 11 to honor the "Magnificent 19" who crashed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. There is no estimate of the total membership of al-Muhajiroun, but it must be significant. After all, the BBC found the group's press conference sufficiently important to warrant prominent coverage.