There is growing concern in Washington that the Prime Minister's resolve to deal with the Iraqi threat is starting to dramatically weaken. The recent comments by his foreign secretary Jack Straw that a war is increasingly unlikely raised eyebrows in the White House and Pentagon, where war planners are pushing ahead with preparations for a February offensive. The remarks led to mounting speculation in the American media that the Blair government was starting to get cold feet.
For several months now it had been taken for granted that Britain would stand alongside the United States in carrying out regime change in Baghdad. That certainty has all but evaporated, with serious consequences for projected Allied operations against Iraq.
There are several reasons why British participation in an Iraq campaign is crucial. Blair holds the key to building a broad-based international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Washington is dependent upon London to help generate diplomatic support not only in Europe but also in the Arab world and the Commonwealth nations of Australia and Canada. Were Blair to back out of military action, the whole coalition could collapse. It would embolden opposition to war in the United Nations, and would strengthen the position of Russia, France and China at the Security Council.
Britain's military role would also be substantial. The projected 20,000 British ground troops, combined with considerable air and naval forces, are expected to play a major part in an Iraq invasion. SAS units will be vital in destroying Iraqi weapon sites, disrupting communications, and co-ordinating missile strikes. The British Army would also be expected to play a lead role in a post-war security operation, to ensure the destruction of the Baathist regime, the capture of war criminals, and the establishment of a successful Iraqi federation representing the major ethnic groups.
Most importantly, British support over the Iraq question is crucially important for the long-term future of the Anglo-US special relationship. It is in Britain's vital national interest to remain as America's key ally in the 21st Century. America will retain its preeminent position as the world's sole superpower, and it is critical that Britain retain its place as Washington's leading partner. The European Union, for all its delusions of grandeur and talk of a common foreign and security policy, is likely to remain a military midget in global power terms for decades to come. Continental Europe is too divided, and too weak, militarily and economically, to mount a serious challenge to US global hegemony. As such, it remains in London's best interest to look toward Washington and not Brussels in order to maximize its influence.
Since September 11 Britain has, in the eyes of Washington, emerged unquestionably as the world's second most powerful nation. Blair's standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush in the war against terrorism has reaped enormous dividends in terms of British prestige and influence on the international stage. In every key area, whether it be diplomatic influence, military power or economic clout, Britain's star is in the ascendancy.
As a result, the Prime Minister is able to wield real influence in Washington. In many ways his views are the only ones listened to intently by the Bush Administration when it canvasses international opinion. Blair is no poodle of the American president's. He played a key role, for example, in pushing President Bush to go down the route of seeking a new UN resolution to confront the Iraqi regime. In many respects Britain has blazed the way in leading international condemnation of Iraq's human rights record and its programme of weapons of mass destruction. Downing Street's two dossiers highlighting the dangerous and tyrannical nature of the dictatorship have provided much of the justification for a war against Iraq.
The contrast with the near total lack of influence of Britain's European partners could not be more striking. Chancellor Schroeder, four months on from his controversial election victory, is still regarded with deep hostility across the Atlantic; due to Germany's uncooperative attitude he has almost no influence over Washington's foreign policy decision-making. Indeed, US-German relations may prove to have been irreparably damaged by Berlin's reckless anti-US position over Iraq. The French continue to be viewed with suspicion by the White House, despite the new Raffarin government's best efforts to distance itself from the harsh anti-US rhetoric of the previous Jospin administration.
There is a danger that Blair will heed the growing cacophony of anti-American voices in the Labour Party and in sections of the British media. Labour, with its rump of hard-left extremists on the backbenches, still suffers from its 'Vietnam' syndrome: a deep distrust of US foreign policy combined with a misguided militant pacifism. If Blair 'goes wobbly', he risks losing everything he has achieved on the foreign policy stage over the past 18 months.
The Prime Minister has shown outstanding international leadership on the Iraq question: it is time for him now to face down opposition within his own fractious party, and to make a convincing case for war to the British people. While the polls show the country evenly split at present on the question of military action, history suggests that the great British public will rally around their leader at a time of war. There is much at stake: the long-term success of the war on terrorism, the future of the Iraqi people, and the Anglo-US special relationship, the cornerstone of global security for the past 57 years.