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The World | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Blair Tries to Steer War Wagon

The British prime minister shrugs off fierce criticism at home while lobbying the U.S. to win U.N. backing for action against Iraq.

January 31, 2003|William Wallace and Maura Reynolds | Special to The Times

LONDON -- To his toughest critics at home, Tony Blair's visit to Camp David today looks like the British "poodle" answering his American master's whistle, a meeting to simply sign off on Washington's game plan to invade Iraq.

For peaceniks, the talks between President Bush and the British prime minister offer the last, best hope to avert war, with Blair wishfully cast as the only ally with the clout to somehow "talk Bush out of it."

Both views are misguided, say Blair associates and diplomatic sources.

Far from being Washington's lap dog, Blair has exerted crucial influence on the Bush administration, they say, most notably in convincing the president to seek U.N. sanction for action against Iraq.

And they say that Blair has already achieved his main goal for Camp David: persuading Bush to return to the United Nations for additional approval for military action, perhaps even a second Security Council resolution.

Neither U.S. nor British officials will discuss the Camp David agenda on the record. But privately, they say the two sides already see eye to eye on the central question of war and peace. What the allies will focus on instead is developing a diplomatic plan to get additional U.N. approval in the next four to eight weeks.

Blair will at least be among friends when he settles in for an afternoon and evening of informal talks with the president and a small group of senior advisors. The mood is much uglier back home, where an antsy public and Parliament are skeptical about the prime minister's insistence that Britain must be on the front lines of any war.

Heckled by Own Party

The British tend to see this as a fight George Bush picked. Polls say the public is 4 to 1 against striking Iraq without a U.N. imprimatur and citizens chafe at the idea that Blair is dragging them toward military action, with all its unpredictable dangers.

Blair has been heckled in Parliament this month -- from his own Labor Party benches. His Cabinet is at best unenthusiastic about joining a U.S.-led invasion. Members of the clergy are calling it immoral, pop stars are protesting, and the Foreign Office is filled with doubters. On the eve of his departure for Washington, one mass-circulation tabloid depicted Blair as a war criminal-in-the-making, complete with a doctored photo showing blood dripping from his hands.

"He feels alone, and I think he feels the pressure," said Clive Soley, a senior Labor member of Parliament and longtime friend of the prime minister. "Tony knows he's put himself 'out there.' And he knows if it doesn't pay off, if things go badly wrong, it'll be goodbye time."

Yet those closest to him say he has expressed no reservations about his position, even in private. Few doubt he will commit Britain to fight at Washington's side should the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein come to blows -- with or without another U.N. resolution.

For one thing, there will soon be 30,000 British troops ringing Iraq, more than a quarter of Britain's armed forces. "I don't see how, once the Americans start shooting, that Blair could turn to Washington and say: 'Sorry, our boys will stay sitting pretty," says Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

For another, observers argue that the prime minister is determined to confront Iraq because it's just the sort of moral crusade he finds appropriate for Britain.

That sense of conviction -- one Cabinet minister once anonymously described Blair as being "in his Jesus mode again" -- has become a cornerstone of Blair's reputation. "The other day he said to me: 'I just do what I believe is right,' " recalled Donald Anderson, who chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and is lukewarm himself on the need for war.

"There's this messianic quality to him. He's not always putting his finger to the wind to decide what to do."

Those close to the prime minister say he has no time for ideology, especially what he sees as the intellectually calcified left-wing, anti-American instincts that still course through part of the Labor Party. (In a speech to diplomats Jan. 7, he dismissed anti-Americanism as "a foolish indulgence.") He makes decisions on gut instinct, say those who know him. And then he's hard to move.

Blair is expected to use his leverage to urge Washington to stay patient and try to get at least some kind of consensus out of the Security Council.

Blair, Powell in Sync

The Bush administration remains divided over just how much to work with the United Nations. Blair's views have coincided nearly perfectly with those of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who believes it would be better for all concerned to get U.N. backing for attacking Iraq. Last summer, at a time when Powell was in the minority inside the administration, Blair's support helped Powell's views hold sway.

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