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Blair’s Agenda

January 31, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on Tony Blair’s agenda here in Washington and the political pressures on him at home, we turn to Reginald Dale, the editor-in-chief of the journal European Affairs – it’s published by the European Institute, a Washington-based public policy organization devoted to transatlantic affairs; and Robin Niblett, a senior fellow at the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He’s written widely on transatlantic relations.

Welcome to you both.

Robin Niblett, it was a little hard to read the tea leaves from the press conference but why don’t you flesh out for us what Tony Blair at least hoped to accomplish today with the meeting with President Bush.

ROBIN NIBLETT: I think Tony Blair fundamentally believes he needs a second resolution to be able to move forward — both domestically, clearly the pressing reasons as you previewed in the front as to why he needs movement domestically, but much more I think strategically.

He sees the need for a U.N. resolution that will really pull together the international community, provide political, as well as logistical support for any operation. I think he’s also concerned about Iraq after a war. If you don’t have a U.N. mandate, if you don’t have firm support, it’s going to be very difficult to have a U.N. push and a U.N. context to oppose Saddam’s Iraq.

That’s clearly a British preference even if it is not a preference here totally in the United States. Then finally you have the transatlantic dimension.

If there is not solid agreement between the United States and Europe as a whole in the next step forward, it will have huge repercussions for U.S.-European relations and for relations within Europe itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Reginald Dale, there were a number of stories, some of them based on interviews given by British officials on the way over here saying that in part to get the second resolution, Tony Blair wanted a little more time at the U.N., perhaps a little more time than the president has indicated he wanted. How do you read that?

REGINALD DALE: Yes, I think he said six-weeks — another six weeks. That may be an opening bargaining position but that would take us into the beginning of March when the forces that are assembling for military intervention would be just about ready.

MARGARET WARNER: During that time then he hoped, what, that either more evidence would come out or that the inspectors would report back, lack of cooperation?

REGINALD DALE: I think it is very important for Tony Blair to be able to point to the inspectors and say that the inspectors have found that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating. That’s very important. Secondly, he wants to have time for the diplomatic process. He wants to try, I’m sure, to bring France back to the table. The British feel that they were very instrumental in the first U.N. resolution in bringing the French closer to the American position and the Americans closer to the French position.

And, that’s very much the role Tony Blair likes to play on the world stage. He used to talk about a bridge across the Atlantic. And I’m sure that he is and will try to do that again now.

MARGARET WARNER: And so Robin Niblett, how much leverage does Prime Minister Blair have with President Bush?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, I think not a lot. The problem that we have here is that in essence, the United States really holds the power militarily. The United States is in the strongest position to be able to move forward whichever way it chooses.

And Tony Blair is bringing in essence support politically for President Bush within the United States. He can, in essence, stand up as he did in the piece you showed, and demonstrate and articulate very strongly the kind of reasoning for being able to take action in a way that perhaps also supports President Bush’s own position and articulates it better in some cases than President Bush can.

But his leverage going forward, all he can afford to do is steer a boat that is already on a particular track, tack it a little bit to the left or tack it a little bit to the right. I think he has fundamentally decided that if the inspectors do not achieve anything, he will go forward to war.

He has brought obviously some European support with his letter that was published a few days ago. That is helpful I think for President Bush. But in terms of leverage, he has to play within the U.S. administration. He is just one voice amongst many.

MARGARET WARNER: But the U.S. — I think he is counting on the fact is he not, that the U.S. administration knows that having Tony Blair strengthens their case.

ROBIN NIBLETT: But at the same time I think there’s no possibility for Tony Blair not to act. If George Bush decides to go, Tony Blair has to go with him. George Bush knows that, the folks in the U.K. know that. So it makes his leverage very difficult to implement.

The most useful contribution here is really making the case for why war is important. And for making the case why having a coalition is vital.

MARGARET WARNER: So we saw all those demonstrations, all the heckling.

How precarious is Prime Minister Blair’s position at home on this issue?

REGINALD DALE: It is not precarious at the moment. It is true that there is a lot of anti-American feeling in Britain, and particularly anti-Bush feeling.

I was there just recently and I was astonished by the amount of feelings, strong feeling which is emotional and sometimes almost hysterical against President Bush and it’s often very ill-informed.

Tony Blair has a huge majority in parliament. He will have the support of the country in military action provided one or two conditions can be fulfilled.

His real problem will be if the war were to go very badly and there were to be a lot of British casualties.

MARGARET WARNER: Why is there such strong feeling against the prospect of war in Britain? And reading the polls, it seems as if that number has been shifting.

ROBIN NIBLETT: I think there has been an ambivalence for many years of people in the UK about the United States.

The Cold War was almost an exceptional time, if we look at it. And it’s different from the reciprocal feelings that are felt by Americans toward the British.

Right now there is suspicion over the motives – I think popularly — is it for oil? There is a fear over what is seen as a hypocrisy or double standard. On the one hand Iraq can take certain choices and not get smacked on the wrist but Saddam Hussein is acted upon.

There’s especially a strong feeling about Israel and Palestine, that question in the UK So ultimately they don’t believe the message of containment. The British have lived with terrorism for many years. You don’t necessarily go to war to be able to resolve a potential threat that came come two, three, five years down the line. It smacks too much of real politic.

MARGARET WARNER: So is Tony Blair out of step with his own Labour Party?

REGINALD DALE: With some of it — with the left-wing of the Labour Party, yes. These are the traditional leftists that he had to overcome to gain control of the party and to win office in the first place.

There’s a strong pacifist, anti-American, the people in favor of total disarmament, total nationalization of British industry — that element of the Labour Party is still there and I’m sure they’re being strengthened by this anti-American feeling at the moment.

But I think he is still in charge of the party.

MARGARET WARNER: So Robin Niblett, explain Tony Blair to us. Why is he willing to buck all this, oppose all — all these opposing views and chart this course?

ROBIN NIBLETT: It has got to be a complex combination ever reasons. I mean those who know Tony Blair argue that he is really morally driven, driven in many ways like President Bush is. While they have many differences, this clearly is a similarity between the two of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me make sure. You mean really thinking that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous man, that the world has to be rid of him, and so on.

ROBIN NIBLETT: Absolutely. And in the long-term, I think he believes there is a threat. I don’t think he is as convinced between the linkage between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, some of the details that have been put forward in the U.S. position.

We have seen the British in a way try to shift the side over to the viability of the U.N.’s credibility and so on, so this has been a valuable rearticulation of the message.

But for Tony Blair himself, his whole role and his whole future and his whole position has been holding the United States together inside Europe for the future security of Europe. That is a fundamental a sine quinone of how he believes.

I think beyond that he is very concerned that there are real threats emerging from terrorism and that if you don’t have the United States as part of this coalition going forward even beyond Iraq, it will be dreadfully damaging for the United States and for the United Kingdom, for the alliance as a whole.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he, Reginald Dale, walking a tightrope here? He believes in [Mr.] Bush’s ultimate objective but he really believes in the U.N. as an institution and he doesn’t want the U.S. to go it alone?

REGINALD DALE: Yes, he believes many things. He believes in principle that Britain should be as close to the United States as possible; that this maximizes British influence and maximizes his own personal influence.

He is very ambitious, he wants to be a world statesman. He sees this as a way of doing it. He wants to be a European statesman.

In this way, if he can draw the United States and Europe closer together, that fulfills that ambition. But he also, as Robin said, has convictions and is convinced of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction and of the dangers of countries being allowed to persistently flout U.N. resolutions. So there is a combination of principle.

He has been called in Britain, the “deputy president of the United States,” as well as being called worse things, but he believes that he maximizes Britain’s influence, and only half in jest it has been written in British newspapers that Britain is now the second most powerful country in the world because of its closeness to the United States.

You can go around and count on your fingers the other countries and see who else might be a candidate for that. But he strongly believes in all those factors.

MARGARET WARNER: And so back to today’s meeting. Finally, how would you describe the personal relationship between President Bush and Tony Blair? President Bush called him “my friend. I value his judgment.”

What is it personally?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I think it’s better now than it was when they first met. There were many, at least a few reports in their first meetings, it was very difficult to make the adjustment from the Bill Clinton White House and closeness on the third way, the leftist view of the world, obviously to George Bush.

But I think that after Sept. 11, after seeing what they went through, after seeing how President Bush has internalized and developed a personal mission to try to confront the threat of terrorism, that is the kind approach to politics that Tony Blair also shares and can also believe in, so I think they’re coming closer together. They’re not together yet on the tactics. There’s bound to be some separations but fundamentally I think there’s a pretty close relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

REGINALD DALE: I would say there is a close relationship. I don’t think it will ever be quite as intimate as it was as Tony Blair’s relationship was with Bill Clinton, who you saw rather as a soul mate. But they’re certainly on friendly terms.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly before we go, is there any doubt that you both said that whether or not there’s a second resolution, that you think Britain will be there militarily with this coalition.

Does Tony Blair have the absolute authority to do that just within the British system, despite the unpopularity that that might have?

REGINALD DALE: Yes, he does. He has to take a big gamble and it will be an even bigger gamble if there is no U.N. Resolution. He is really playing with his entire political future here.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much.