wm147: Tony Blair's Challenge in Securing British Support for a WarAgainst Iraq

Report Middle East

wm147: Tony Blair's Challenge in Securing British Support for a WarAgainst Iraq

September 25, 2002 21 min read
Nile Gardiner
Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow
Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.

Together with President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is at the forefront of international condemnation of the Iraqi regime for its production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in violation of numerous United Nation resolutions. Blair describes Saddam Hussein as an "international outlaw" running a "barbaric regime" and warns that "to allow him to use the weapons he has or the weapons he wants would be an act of gross irresponsibility and we should not countenance it."[1] His clear call to Britain and the international community is to stand together to face the threat posed by Iraq's regime and to force a regime change if it continues to defy the U.N. mandates:[2]

The issue is making sure it [Iraq] is not a threat and either the regime starts to function in an entirely different way, and there hasn't been much sign of that, or the regime has to change. That is the choice, very simply.[3]

The release by Downing Street of the British government's powerful dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction confirms the Prime Minister's position at the forefront of the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power.[4] Alongside President Bush, he is carefully crafting an international coalition to confront Iraq, which now includes Italy, Spain, and several Arab nations.[5]

The 50-page dossier is a powerful indictment of the Iraqi government and a stark warning to the world regarding Iraq's development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It demonstrates how Iraq is generating billions of dollars through illicit earnings outside of U.N. control to finance its weapons program. The British government has warned that Baghdad has "tried covertly to acquire technology and materials which could be used in the production of nuclear weapons (and) sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it." The report predicts that Iraq would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon on its own within five years, and within two years if Saddam Hussein is able to obtain weapons-grade material from abroad. In addition Baghdad is actively developing missiles with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers, which would be in service by 2007.

Such support from Tony Blair for the U.S.-led effort to rid the world of the threat from Saddam Hussein is vital, but before Blair can play the full role as America's key partner in any war against Baghdad, the Prime Minister must slay two dragons in his path: dissent within his own Cabinet and Labour party and widespread opposition within the European Union (EU). If he is successful, his effort will have allowed him to demonstrate real leadership within the House of Commons and throughout Europe. If he is not, there is a real danger that the international coalition against Iraq could collapse.

The EU, in fact, may try to capitalize on opposition to an Iraq war to project its influence on the global stage. There is little doubt that the closeness of the Anglo-American "special relationship" since September 11, 2001, has caused envy and disquiet among the leaders of the militarily inadequate EU. Brussels focuses much of its resentment for its irrelevance on the world stage on Tony Blair. For example, Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel has expressed the irritation among EU members that the organization is unable to condemn the Bush Administration with a single voice "in large part because Britain, through Tony Blair, gives unquestioned, unilateral support to the United States."[6] Expressing the desire of many Europeans to compete with the United States, Michel opined that: "Morally and politically we could take charge in the world. But the British are blocking that. They still don't understand that they could play a pioneer role in Europe instead of submissively following the US."[7]

Indeed, Britain's position as a leading global player has been greatly enhanced in large part due to Blair's standing "shoulder to shoulder" with President Bush after the terrorist attacks. It is the only nation in Europe able to project substantial military strength beyond the European continent, and has emerged as the world's second most powerful military and political force in the new century.

Britain will play a vitally important role in any military action against Baghdad. But Tony Blair's ability to help build the international coalition against Iraq's rogue regime will be hampered significantly if his position within the governing Labour Party is weakened. Should that happen, the success of the effort to cement the international coalition against Iraq is at risk. The Bush Administration must recognize the difficulties Blair faces in shoring up support at home and across Europe. It should demonstrate its support for Tony Blair's courageous lead and focus on ways to strengthen the Anglo-U.S. "special relationship" while continuing to build an international coalition for a campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

Domestic Challenges to Blair's Iraq Policy

Despite British Prime Minister Tony Blair's unequivocal position on the threat that Iraq poses to the region, the West, and the world, he faces significant opposition at home and in Europe. That opposition is likely to wane once the inevitable war begins. And many of those now vociferously objecting to an effort to force Iraq to comply with U.N. mandates regarding weapons of mass destruction and regional security will seek to participate in Iraq's reconstruction after the war ends.

Face with such opposition, it is important for U.S. policymakers to understand the monumental leadership Blair is showing in this issue.

Labour Party Opposition. Dissent within the Labour Party over Iraq has grown significantly in recent months. Of the 160 backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) who signed a Commons motion opposing military action in Iraq are 133 from Blair's own Labour Party, all 18 Liberal Democrats, and all nationalist party MPs from Scotland and Wales.[8] The motion was sponsored by left-wing activist MP Alice Mahon, who is unstinting in her condemnation of U.S. policy. For example, she responded to reports of the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review by exclaiming that "lunatics have taken over the White House."[9] A BBC poll of 100 Labour MPs found that nearly 90 percent believe there is insufficient evidence to justify military action against Iraq.[10] A survey of Labour constituency chairmen in the party's 100 most vulnerable seats found that  an overwhelming majority opposed such a war.[11]

The Labour leadership is braced for a storm of protest over the Iraq question at next month's party conference.[12] Some Labour MPs warn the issue could deeply divide the party and even result in Tony Blair being forced to step down as Labour leader. Tony Benn, a veteran socialist MP, advised Blair to warn President Bush "that he should abandon his war plans or America will be totally isolated." A war with Iraq, Benn continued, "could cost Tony Blair his job, undermine public support for the government as a whole, inflict untold suffering on millions-and must be stopped."[13] Tam Dalyell, the longest-serving member of the Commons, has condemned Blair's foreign policy as "catastrophic" and described him as "the worst Labour prime minister I've known."[14]

A deep-seated hatred of the current Bush Administration is evident in some quarters of the Labour Party, and the United States should be under no illusions that the party led by Tony Blair shares his pro-American stance. Labour traditionally has been a socialist movement that is hostile to many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and there is growing resentment over U.S. policy on a wide range of issues, from the International Criminal Court and the Arab-Israeli conflict to the war on terrorism, missile defense, climate change, transatlantic trade, and the death penalty.

The Labour Party includes such extreme figures as Scottish MP George Galloway, senior vice-chairman of the parliamentary party's foreign affairs committee who holds one of the most prominent Labour foreign policy positions in the Commons. Dubbed by cynics as the "MP for Baghdad Central,"[15] and an "apologist" and "mouthpiece for the Iraqi regime over many years,"[16]

Galloway has visited Saddam Hussein on numerous occasions. On one such trip in 1994, he caused outrage by telling the Iraqi dictator who has used chemical weapons on his own people: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability and I want you to know that we are with you."[17] Galloway has called the campaign to eliminate Baghdad's WMD "the longest running hoax in the international community"[18] and complained that "it is humiliating for Great Britain to turn itself into the tail of the American dog, particularly when the head of this dog belongs to a crazy person."[19] This past August, on his return from his latest meeting with Saddam, Galloway asserted:

In my meeting with the Iraqi president last week, he seemed to believe that our own government, with its special relationship to Washington and its more nuanced take on Arab affairs, might be the one to break the log jam. Seeing Britain as Greece to America's Rome, many Arabs feel that Britain-the older though faded power-might guide the gunslinging Americans back to the negotiating path and adherence to UN resolutions and international law.[20]

Galloway believes the Iraq issue will divide the party and could lead to the defeat of the Blair leadership.[21] In a thinly veiled threat to the Prime Minister, he warned, "If he joins this absolutely illegal, immoral and counterproductive war, not only will he be not be doing so in our name: he may find he will soon cease to speak for us on anything at all."[22]

Some of the fiercest criticism of the government's support for the United States has come from former Labour ministers. Former Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd described recent remarks by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the BBC as "very much like the rhetoric we sometimes hear from fairly tinpot regimes…where the agenda isn't to convince the outside world but to make sure the public at home believes the regime."[23] Gerald Kaufman, Labour shadow foreign secretary during the first Gulf War and an influential figure on the backbenches, has warned that an attack on Iraq could result in "a wholesale Middle East conflagration." His views on the Bush Administration are scathing: "Pity the man who relies on Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice for counsel."[24]

Tony Blair may dismiss such statements as old-fashioned anti-American Labour rabble-rousing (indeed, as a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament he will have heard it all before). But he will find it harder to ignore the doubts expressed by figures such as Peter Mandelson, who twice resigned in disgrace from the Labour cabinet. Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, is one of Blair's most trusted advisers. He has said that "we cannot have a system in which one state feels that it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory it claims. Any nation doing that would be a recipe for chaos."[25]

Cabinet Opposition

There are also signs of a growing rift within Tony Blair's Cabinet over the Iraq issue. Former foreign secretary and Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook has emerged as a leading opponent of an Iraq war. Cook, the architect of New Labour's "ethical foreign policy", was sacked by Blair after a series of diplomatic blunders, and there is little love lost between the two. He has been described as "a new and undeniably dangerous spokesman of old (moral) Labour."[26] Cook is said to have deep reservations about Blair's support for President Bush, although he has not yet issued any public statements criticizing the government's position.

If Cook does speak out against military action, he is likely to be supported by International Development Secretary Clare Short, who resigned from the Labour Shadow Cabinet over the first Gulf War in 1991. Short is the most outspoken and left-wing member of the Blair team, and has already warned that there is a "bottom line" to her support for future government policy on Iraq. She was admonished by Blair in April for publicly warning against "blind military action against Iraq."[27] While no Labour minister in a Blair cabinet has yet resigned on a matter of principle, it is conceivable that Short could step down over an Iraq invasion.

In contrast to Downing Street, Short believes the question of how to tackle Saddam is "still open." The position of Short and other critics in the Cabinet has been strengthened in recent weeks by what Short describes as "a lot of wise voices in the US (who) are saying it would be enormously dangerous for the US to go it alone."[28] There is little doubt that the anti-war statements of such former U.S. government officials as James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Lawrence Eagleburger have emboldened British and European critics of President Bush's policy of regime change.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, also publicly expressed doubts over the Prime Minister's support for the U.S. position on Iraq, tying "conflict in the world" with poverty and environmental degradation.[29] Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown-who is most likely to take over if Blair is forced out of office-has privately expressed reservations about the effects an Iraq conflict would have on the global economy.[30] Home Secretary David Blunkett, another leading contender for the future leadership of the Labour Party, has warned that Muslim youths may riot in British inner cities if war breaks out in the Middle East.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has been critical in the past of several aspects of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, including the President's State of the Union address and U.S. treatment of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been a leading advocate of "constructive engagement" of rogue states, such as Iran. While Straw has stood by Tony Blair's hard-line stance on dealing with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, he still firmly believes that the best way of dealing with the Iraqi threat is through the reintroduction of weapons inspectors. He favors setting a deadline for Iraq to readmit the weapons inspectors with unfettered access. His belief that war can be avoided[31] is different from Blair's. The Prime Minister has called for the unconditional return of U.N. inspectors, but holds the view that a regime change will probably still be necessary.

Standing Alone in Support
Only Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, has emerged as a strong supporter of the United States' (and Blair's) tough position on Iraq and rogue states. Hoon, by far the most hawkish member of the Blair team, has stated that Britain would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if necessary against rogue nations that use WMD against British troops.[32] Hoon believes that Britain would be "perfectly entitled" to use force against Iraq without a United Nations mandate if Baghdad posed a threat.[33]

The Risks for Blair
The real danger for Tony Blair lies in the possibility of a major Cabinet uprising combined with widespread Labour backbench opposition. The resignation of two or three Cabinet ministers, in conjunction with a sizeable backbench rebellion, could prompt calls for a "regime change" within the Labour Party.

At present, this scenario is unlikely. There are no immediate signs of a major Cabinet revolt. However Blair's own position may become substantially weaker in the coming months, as the Prime Minister comes under increasing pressure from his own MPs, Labour Party activists, trade unions, and left-wing media to distance himself from President Bush. If the tide swings heavily against the government in the parliamentary Labour Party, this is likely to spur greater open opposition within the Cabinet.

Critics of War

An extraordinary coalition of Labour politicians, church representatives, trade union leaders, academics, former diplomats, and ex-military chiefs has evolved in recent weeks, making Iraq the biggest foreign policy protest issue in Britain since the late 1960s.

Many of the attacks on British and U.S. policy toward Iraq reflect deep-seated anti-Americanism and resentment at rising U.S. military power since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The frank views of Richard Dawkins, an eminent Oxford University zoologist, are representative of those of many British liberal academic elites. Dawkins has spoken out against removing Saddam Hussein from power, and has made provocatively clear his disdain of the Prime Minister's close ties to President Bush:

Obnoxious as Saddam Hussein undoubtedly is, it is not obvious that he is more of a danger to the world than President Bush and his reckless handlers. It would be a tragedy if Tony Blair, a good man who has so much to offer this country, were to be brought down through playing poodle to this unelected and deeply stupid little oil spiv.[34]

The British clergy is also voicing strong anti-war concerns. Britain's two most senior churchmen-Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster-have led a cacophony of sanctimonious disapproval of Blair's close alliance with President Bush over Iraq. The Right Reverend Thomas McMahon, one of four Catholic bishops publicly opposed to the war, called action against Iraq "wicked and foolhardy."[35] Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, who is due to take over as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, has declared that an Iraq war would be tantamount to fighting "terror with terror" and a "violation of both the United Nations and Christian moral teaching."[36] Williams has argued that the attacks of September 11 cannot be viewed as "an act of war."[37]

The anti-war Left has joined a curious alliance with senior former military officials and retired generals opposed to war. The specter of Suez and Britain's ill-fated intervention in the Middle East in the1950s once again haunt the opinion editorial pages of British newspapers. Sir Michael Quinlan, former head of the Ministry of Defence, finds American claims of a "just war" against Iraq "deeply questionable," and a war with Iraq "could provoke more severe domestic division than Britain has seen since the Suez Crisis."[38] Field Marshall Lord Bramall, former chief of defence staff, also drew parallels with the ill-fated British and French attack on Egypt in 1956, describing the current build-up to war as "a potentially very dangerous situation, in which this country might be swept into a very, very messy and long-lasting Middle East War." He questions America's motives, believing that in the aftermath of September 11 it could be "carried along with the same wave of emotion and a feeling of revenge."[39] General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of international peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, fueled the debate by writing about "huge political and military risks associated with launching large-scale ground forces into Iraq."[40]

British Public Opinion

Blair also has a challenge in building public support. The latest opinion polls in Britain found increasing opposition to British participation in an Iraq war. An August ICM poll quoted in the Guardian found that 52 percent of Britons were opposed to military action and just 33 percent were in favor. Opposition to war has risen 14 percentage points since March.[41] The Prime Minister's private pollster Philip Gould has warned Blair that President Bush is deeply unpopular with many British voters.[42] And a poll taken in Blair's own district of Sedgefield revealed that nearly two thirds of his constituents opposed his support for the U.S. President.[43]

Making the Case for War with Iraq
There are however some positive signs for a Blair government if it chooses to go to war with Iraq. A striking 77 percent of respondents in a Telegraph YouGov poll believed that Saddam Hussein is "a threat to the peace of the world"; 75 percent supported the view that Iraq was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction, and 74 percent thought that Saddam supported terrorism against the United States and other Western countries.[44] There is every reason to believe that public opinion in the U.K. in the coming months could be swayed in the government's favor if the Prime Minister makes the case for war strongly to the British public.

Though the British government was relatively silent on the Iraq issue over the summer, the case against Iraq is now being made powerfully by Downing Street and the Foreign Office. The release of the British government's dossier on Saddam's threat capability should have a marked impact on public opinion. Greater clarity emerging on the Iraq issue from Washington will also help to strengthen Blair's case domestically.

In addition, the recent statements by Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith supporting Blair's position on Iraq[45] should bolster support among Conservatives for military action. Just one third of Tory voters back the Prime Minister on Iraq, which is more a reflection of anti-Blair feeling than an expression of anti-war sentiment. The Prime Minister will need the support of Britain's second largest parliamentary party as he heads off criticism of his Iraq policy. It is significant that not one Conservative MP signed the Commons motion condemning U.S. policy on Iraq.

Blair should also draw comfort from the fact that a majority of the British print media are supportive of British participation in a regime change in Baghdad. The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Sun, and The Mail, with a combined readership of 19.2 million, all support military action. The Labour-supporting publications, The Guardian, Independent, and Mirror, with 7.3 million readers, are firmly opposed.[46] Significantly for Blair, the hugely popular tabloid newspaper, The Sun, with a daily circulation of 4 million copies, is loudly beating the drum for war. The Sun played a leading role in bringing Blair to power in the last two general elections, and it is expected to provide powerful backing for the Prime Minister over the Iraq issue.

Historical evidence suggests that the British, an intensely patriotic people with a proud history of successfully waging war, will rally around the government at a time of battle. Every major conflict which Britain has been involved in since the Falklands War has been supported by overwhelming majorities. But it is ironic that a Labour Prime Minister may need the backing of a right-wing opposition press in order to ensure his political survival.


Britain is highly likely to join the United States in military action against Iraq, even perhaps without the support of the United Nations, and it is expected to play a central role in a post-war security force. Its participation also is vitally important in helping America build an international military and diplomatic coalition to remove Saddam Hussein from power. If Britain does not participate in the regime change in Baghdad, there is a danger the United States may well be left in splendid isolation on the international stage.

Ideally, both the U.K. government and Washington would like to see a "regime change" in Iraq with the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, but this may not be achievable. The British are under no illusions about the prevarication strategy of the Iraqi government, and they fully understand Saddam Hussein's time-delaying tactics in a desperate attempt to halt a U.S.-led strike.

While the British Prime Minister is currently backing President Bush's stance on Iraq, that situation could change in the coming months. At present, Blair's position is strong enough to withstand Labour calls for Britain to drop plans to join America in a war against Iraq. His relatively powerful standing as both Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party could be eroded over the next six to 12 months by potential leadership challenges and by growing discontent on the Left of the party.

Blair should be able to win the battle of public opinion over the Iraq issue, but he may struggle to convince his own party. He will only go into a war against Iraq from a position of strength and if he believes his future is secure. The Bush Administration should be aware that Blair will come under increasing pressure to play a more forthright role in helping to resolve the current Palestinian conflict as well, and his appetite for action against Saddam could start to wane if Britain becomes enmeshed in international efforts to contain the Arab-Israeli dispute.

There are many reasons that the United States should act sooner rather than later if Iraq fails to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and abide by U.N. resolutions. Among them are the strong support from the British government for a U.S.-led action against Saddam and the political pressures on Blair to step back from that support. The Bush Administration must recognize the difficulties Blair faces in shoring up support domestically and across Europe and demonstrate its support for his courageous leadership. It should also focus on ways to strengthen the Anglo-U.S. "special relationship" while building an international coalition for a campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is a Visiting Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.



Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow