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Blair Walks a Swaying Tightrope in Iraq Crisis

February 21, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — During six years in office, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proved himself a world-class politician: a communicator, a bridge-builder who convinces with the force of his convictions.

But as he travels to Rome today to discuss a possible war in Iraq with an antiwar Pope John Paul II this weekend, Blair must grapple with a crisis that could have a decisive impact on his political future.

Blair is the lonely man in the middle. He is caught between hawks and doves, rightists and leftists, the United States and Europe. He has ordered 42,000 troops to the Persian Gulf, but he is also the driving force behind a last-ditch Anglo-American push for a second U.N. resolution calling for military intervention if Iraq does not disarm.

Blair will need all his earnest eloquence to persuade feuding foreign allies, not to mention his own skeptical voters and Labor Party, to unite against Saddam Hussein. With Britons leading the way, the worldwide antiwar movement is gathering steam at an inopportune moment for the prime minister. Blair's approval ratings have plunged after years of consistently robust numbers.

Blair admits that his quest for consensus has put him at risk politically. He doesn't face much of a threat from the chronically weak Conservative Party opposition because its leaders support his Iraq policy. No serious challengers have surfaced within Labor, either. But if the British and Americans end up invading Iraq without U.N. backing, analysts predict that several of Blair's key Cabinet ministers might resign in protest.

"He's in a tough position," said Jonathan Stevenson of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank here. "Unless he gets a second resolution, it's going to be difficult to avoid major costs politically."

Moreover, the war issue has further distanced Blair from his party. Already, his pragmatic centrism has alienated him from Labor's core left-leaning beliefs on issues such as reforming the House of Lords: He angered Labor members by opposing a bid to elect the Lords, who are now appointed.

Blair's decision to go it alone on Iraq "risks breaking the Labor Party," a party dissident, Mark Seddon, wrote in the Times of London this week.

And the prime minister has put his considerable political capital and personal credibility on the line. So a war that results in major casualties or another worst-case scenario could be disastrous for him, according to political observers.

"Ignoring public opinion is risky enough, but ignoring opposition from within your own party can be fatal," said James Price Thomas, a political analyst. "This is undoubtedly the biggest test of Mr. Blair's political career, and the strain is beginning to show."

The strain is worse because of Blair's commitment to disparate objectives: a staunch U.S.-British partnership, a viable United Nations, a unified European Union.

And Blair has an ambitious agenda, working hard to craft a high-toned moral rebuttal to the outpouring of antiwar sentiment at last weekend's march here by a million protesters. He heard words of caution Thursday from two leading churchmen. The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor urged the world to avoid "the trauma and tragedy of war."

"The events of recent days show that doubts still persist about the moral legitimacy, as well as the unpredictable humanitarian consequences of a war with Iraq," the two said in a rare joint statement.

Although the religious leaders also urged Hussein to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors, their message was interpreted as a response to Blair's efforts to frame his argument for a potential war on moral grounds.

Blair agonizes over such weighty questions, according to Father John Caden of St. John Fisher Church in Sedgefield. Caden has known the prime minister as a friend, tennis partner and churchgoer for 20 years. Blair is Anglican, but he has attended Caden's church with his wife, Cherie, who is Catholic.

"I know the faith he has as a Christian, and I know he's got to weigh that against the objective dangers he sees in the world," Caden said.

At a speech to Labor Party members last weekend in Glasgow, Blair acknowledged the difficulty of his position. "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor," he said. "But sometimes it is the price of leadership and the cost of conviction."

During that speech, Blair called Hussein's government "one of the most barbarous and detestable regimes in modern history."

"Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity; it is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane," he said. "It is the reason, frankly, why if we have to act we should do so with a clear conscience."

Injecting morality into politics is nothing new for Blair. He has frequently expressed an evangelical concern for righting the world's wrongs. His targets have included Africa's endemic poverty -- he once called the state of that continent "a scar on the conscience of the world."

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