LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair strongly defended the latest U.S.-British bombing of Iraq against growing European criticism Tuesday, three days before his planned first meeting with President Bush.
Blair denied that the policy to contain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein--along with military issues such as the proposed U.S. missile defense system--could drive a wedge between the United States and Europe and force Britain to take sides.
"I think we're less alone than it seems on this," Blair said of the Iraq policy. "People sometimes understand that we'll be the ones to act. I think if you were to talk to any of our main allies, privately at least, about Saddam, they recognize the danger."
Blair spoke with a handful of reporters at 10 Downing St. before his scheduled departure today for a visit to Canada and the United States. He is to hold talks with Bush on an array of defense, trade and economic issues Friday and Saturday at Camp David, Md.
A friend and political ally of former President Clinton, Blair would seem to be in an awkward position as he prepares to meet the new Republican president. On Tuesday, the prime minister was eager to make the point that what Britain calls the "special relationship" between London and Washington is institutional rather than personal, but he added that "you can be close friends with more than one person."
After last week's airstrikes against Iraqi radar installations near Baghdad, however, Blair looks more isolated in Europe than at odds with the United States. France and Germany have joined the Arab world in protesting the bombing, with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine saying it violated international law.
Acknowledging the dwindling support for a hawkish Iraq policy, Blair aides said the American and British leaders will explore ideas for refining sanctions against Baghdad to concentrate on arms control and limiting the freedom of movement of leading members of Hussein's regime, while lifting controls on civilian goods and resources to rebuild the country's oil industry. The sanctions were imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Other sanctions already have been eased in the last four years by an "oil-for-food" arrangement that allows Iraq to sell some oil and buy food and medicine with the proceeds. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is headed for the Mideast later this week to try to revive support for the U.S.-British position, which is that sanctions cannot be completely lifted until Iraq complies with 1991 Persian Gulf War cease-fire resolutions.
In Washington on Tuesday, Powell seemed to have persuaded visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to accept the justification for the U.S.-British attacks. Asked during a joint news conference if Germany had come to support the strikes, Fischer said, "We understand the action our allies had to take in an immensely difficult situation . . . where they have to make sure that they safeguard the lives of the [Iraqi] Kurds as well as of their own troops in those regions."
Blair, meanwhile, stayed focused on what he called "probably the most dangerous man anywhere in the world," noting that Hussein has killed thousands of his own people, gone to war with Iran at the cost of a million lives, annexed neighboring Kuwait before the Gulf War and sought to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"I think what we're doing on Iraq is absolutely essential," Blair said. "The test is what sort of situation would we be in if we'd had no pressure for the last 10 years, no sanctions, no attempt to enforce 'no-fly' zones. The answer is that Saddam would have been out there creating an awful lot more mischief than he is able to do now."
The controversial airstrikes appear to have had no negative effect on Blair's standing at home. A poll in the Guardian newspaper Tuesday showed him 15 points ahead of the opposition Conservative Party less than three months ahead of an expected general election.
On the other military issues threatening to divide the United States and Europe, Blair urged "discussion and persuasion" and said that Britain could play a role in both directions. The Bush administration has said it favors a national missile defense system, first proposed by President Clinton, to protect against intercontinental missiles from potential nuclear powers such as North Korea.
Russia and China oppose the plan--which would require an upgraded radar station in the English county of North Yorkshire and which they worry would be expanded in an effort to protect the U.S. from large nuclear powers. Moscow says the plan violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and European countries have said they fear that the program could lead to a renewed arms race.
Washington, on the other hand, has expressed concerns that the European Union's plan to develop a rapid-reaction military force to send to regional trouble spots could threaten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.