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Tony Blair’s Predicament with Iraq

February 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: For more on Tony Blair’s predicament, we turn to Pippa Norris, a lecturer in comparative politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has authored and edited some 20 books on politics and public opinion. And Robin Niblett, a senior fellow in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has written widely on transatlantic relations.

Robin Niblett, how important is it for Tony Blair to get the second resolution?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I think it’s vital for him. Tony Blair believes that the United Nations ultimately is one of the central pillars of world order going forward. If it’s ripped asunder over this issue with Iraq, that ultimately you are putting the world at threat and putting the future of the war against terrorism threat at well, which is also crucial for him. Domestically as we’ve seen, he has huge reasons to want to be able to demonstrate to the British public that he in essence is not just acting in America’s behest. But he is acting within an international context. And that in essence this is part of the way forward that will be institutionally strong for the future. So I think he has huge reasons both domestic and structurally.

Finally and most importantly the role for Britain from Tony Blair’s points of view has always been to not allow the United States and Europe to come apart on the issue of security, this is one of the fundamental issues against of the post-post Cold War era, the war on terrorism, and if they break apart on this, it will be tragic for the world and also for the U.K.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Norris, how would you describe what’s at stake here for Tony Blair as it comes to getting the resolution through the Security Council and not vetoed?

PIPPA NORRIS: Well, I agree very much with Robin. What you have is essentially Britain trying to play the middle position holding together the transatlantic alliance on the one hand with the special relationship and also being part of old Europe so playing a part in the E.U. as well and the dilemma for the party is very much that of course these two have moved apart. Old Europe and the United States have moved further and further apart over the last few weeks. And so really Blair’s position in some ways in trying to straddle these two positions has become almost impossible.

GWEN IFILL: Kind of a rock and a hard place that he’s between — but domestically the politics of this for him domestically how critical is it when you look at poll numbers like he has seen in the last few days showing this, this precipitous drop?

PIPPA NORRIS: There are strengths and weaknesses for Blair. On the one hand, he faces a very weak opposition in the official Conservative party which also favors the war. So they are not going to press a great deal of criticism against his leadership on this issue. At the same time in the election he faces almost no chance of electoral defeat in the next general election that we have, and he has an enormous parliamentary majority, so the party is rallying around him to some extent, some of his official senior cabinet members came out trying to support his position. And so he also has the respect of the party who believe he is taking a very strong moral stance. It’s quite simply not an appeal to public popularity. He really believes in the rightness of his cause on this issue.

Against that, we have these weaknesses; clearly it’s not just over a million people on the street. The fact that four months ago for example the public was really divided on the issue of an attack over Iraq, and now as we’ve seen only 1/3 support that. We know there are divisions as well and his personal approval in particular has really gone down sharply just in the last few months.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Niblett, is one of the reasons for his permanent approval having gone down — is it driven, what we saw this week on the streets of London and so many other European cities — this very vibrant anti-war movement?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I don’t think that’s the direct result; that’s just a symptom of fact that his popularity has gone done. Tony Blair has not been successful domestically with his own domestic program. Really where he is expected to be successful, where he has been most successful has been in international relations, that is where he is expected to achieve the greatest achievements. Here we have him in essence potentially risking all Britain’s international reputation, his own party, in a situation where he appears to have somewhat lost control.

I think here the split in Europe, the collapse in essence of Europe’s foreign security policy issue around this issue, the wobbling on what the real issues are on why we are attacking Iraq; is it a moral reason, because all the people have been killed, or is it the weapons of mass destruction? There is this movement and this sense of insecurity and sense of his beliefs. I think therefore people stand to lose confidence in the one area where Blair is really meant to be on top of things, which is international relations.

GWEN IFILL: Is the moral argument working? I’ve noticed, …heard we in the setup piece him speaking about how many more people have suffered at Saddam’s hand than are protesting. We are beginning to hear that slowly from the administration in the U.S. administration as well. Does that work?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I don’t know. I think the British public are a fairly cynical public. They know there are many dictators around world. Why pick on this on – why not Kim Jung Il in North Korea? The Palestine issue plays strongly in the UK as well – a sense of kind of double standards that are applied towards the United States and that paradoxically are now starting to rub off on him.

So he is starting to be tarred with the same brush as George Bush in UK public opinion. And that’s really one of the ironies is that when he comes over to the United States, he does a great job in backing up George Bush and articulating his message, but when he has George Bush trying to back him up on his position, or Don Rumsfeld or anyone else, Blair suffers mightily as a result.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Norris, one of the things that Tony Blair has always tried to do is to cast himself as a bridge between Europe and the United States. Now he is between the rock and a hard place you described with Chirac on one side and George W. Bush on the other side. Does he have much sway over either man at this point?

PIPPA NORRIS: Well, I think he thought that certainly things would come out in a different way and that he could act in this bridge capacity. And really he could persuade his colleagues in Europe there had to be to be to be a coalition of the willing and that there was a moral case based on human rights in Iraq and the way in which developments have really spun out of his control just in the last couple of weeks and the way in which France in particular has played a leading role in turning around for example Putin in Russia and building a coalition of a number of countries as we saw in the debate today at the U.N., so things have moved out of his control. And the ways in which he has tried to persuade has been open to public debate. He’s gone on television on a number of occasions. He has been quizzed by the public. He’s spoken to his party. He is very articulate in parliament but none of that has persuaded enough.

The British public is quite simply not seeing the reasons to go to war. There is still a group who is undecided. And they might be persuaded depending on how things play out in the next few weeks particularly if Hans Blix came out with a critical report, if the UN resolution really was quite strong and there was complete backing from a number of other countries, then the public might turn around somewhat. But until those two things happen, then I think Blair is really facing an uphill task.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what I wanted to follow up with you on, which is how strong does that UN resolution have to be? Does it have to have a deadline in it, if you don’t do this by this date then we will; does it have a have a set of particulars in it?

PIPPA NORRIS: Well, it’s a matter for negotiation between all the different groups to come to a compromise. But what seems most probable is that there should be a list of very specific disarmament proposals which have somehow to be demonstrated by Iraq and a deadline. And as we’ve seen the deadline people have been talking about weeks not months. In other words I think that the coalition of the willing has probably about four to six weeks in order to try to arrive at some sort of compromise. If it doesn’t arrive, that is the point of which Blair is really going to have a crisis within the party, within the cabinet and over his own leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Niblett, if for some reason this second resolution gets to the point where people are, it has to be voted on and there is a veto, for some reason it doesn’t succeed — either a resolution doesn’t get to the floor of the Security Council or it is vetoed, does Tony Blair have any choice but to join the coalition of the willing even if it’s two or three countries and stick with George W. Bush, is there any room for him to maneuver out of this?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I don’t believe so. I believe that if as you pointed out that was the reality, then, Tony Blair would go with the United States, would go with George Bush. He is always taking on a kind of Churchillian quality here — strong public opposition, an unwillingness to accept the nature of the threat and I see himself, he’s taken a position where he will stand by his convictions and he’ll follow through them as far as he can.

GWEN IFILL: At the risk of everything domestically, political for him–

ROBIN NIBLETT: At the risk of everything domestically, politically. You’ve got to remember, though, he has the US military and UK military on his side. If they go to war, there is a strong possibility that it will be a successful war, that there will be people waving American flags potentially in the south of Iraq or the north of Iraq — you could have a successful operation. This is where this is high stakes poker for him. If you have a successful military operation, it’s proven that Saddam Hussein was able to be overthrown the horror of his regime, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, he will come out of this hugely strengthened and really, as I said, in Churchillian huge proportions.

GWEN IFILL: How big an if is that?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, I’m not a military analyst but I think he reckons that the odds are good for him to keep and follow through on his current course.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Norris, the Atlantic coalition, the Atlantic Alliance; it is frayed now. Is it forever damaged?

PIPPA NORRIS: Well, I think we’ll have to see what the outcome is; I think Robin is quite right. If there is a successful outcome to any attack on Iraq, then one can see that a number of different institutions can go back to what it might be seen as normal politics, normal diplomacy, NATO, they’ll get over some of the problems there, the E.U. will continue with its expansion and we’ll go back to a more regular diplomacy.

If, however, the attack fails and it’s clearly seen as a responsibility of both Bush and Blair, for example if there is very high casualties on the side of the Americans and the British forces, if they go in, then clearly the responsibility has to lie with the leaders who are concerned. They are very isolated in that position. So in that context it’s a tremendous risk, and the outcome is going to be really important.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about the future of the Atlantic Alliance, Mr. Niblett?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, I think it’s damaged. It was damaged before this particular debate with its enlargement, with its loss of a sense of purpose. Really, this Iraq war is the classic example of the loss of a sense of common threat; there is a fundamental difference in opinion as to whether this is a clear and present danger or not. I would say probably of the majority of the European public including probably the UK public are not convinced this is the case, and therefore it’s going to be very hard to stitch it together again. It will be a different alliance or continue to be allies, but the Atlantic Alliance standing by itself in perpetuity is clearly under threat.

GWEN IFILL: And, Pippa Norris, when Jacques Chirac said this weekend that members of the new Europe, the countries who have been supportive of the United States were in danger of being admitted to the E.U. if they didn’t support, if they didn’t back away from their support or whatever the vague threat that he posed, do you think that was a significant split?

PIPPA NORRIS: No. I think the most convincing reason was the one given by many leaders who said, look, you can’t expect all the new member states to be part of the E.U. and to be part of the E.U. policy when the E.U. itself is split on these sorts of issues. And there are so many fundamental agreements on what the European foreign policy should be. So until the European Union gets its act together, that’s the only time at which you can expect the new members to have a loyalty and allegiance, as I think they would do to the policy of the European Union.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll be watching Tony Blair’s every step. Thank you both for joining us.