By David Howell
For anyone with the slightest sense of history it is impossible not to admire the tireless conviction and the lonely valour of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Critics there may be a-plenty of his presentation of the case for military force against Iraq – the argument seems to switch about constantly. He has failed to carry millions of protest marchers, the leaders of the Anglican Church, the bulk of his own political party, his largest European partners, including the wily French leader, Jacques Chirac, the Pope in Rome and most of West European public opinion.
But about his actual stance in support of George Bush and his iron determination to maintain it there is something so remarkable, so hero-like, that it seems to come from another age.
There is no doubt that even the most hawkish Americans would hesitate to go it completely alone if the British commitment faltered. All semblance of an international coalition effort would be lost.
Of course there are other stalwarts standing by the U.S. – including Japan and the smaller countries of Central Europe. But the British Government led by Mr.Blair is the one which all along has been much the strongest in support of the Washington line and which has sent troops and equipment on a substantial scale to the Gulf alongside the growing American force. It is Blair alone amongst European leaders who seems to share George Bush’s Herculean vision of a crusade to rid the world of rogue states, stretching beyond the liberation of Iraq to dealing – in ways yet unspecified – with North Korea and others beyond that.
So on the relatively young shoulders of the British Prime Minister rests one of the momentous decisions of our times – to make the hard choice, with no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ , to launch with America a gigantic and pre-emptive armada against Saddam Hussein and his regime, and to do so if necessary even without a further firmly authorizing resolution from the United Nations, and even without the prior categorical authority of his own Parliament at Westminster.
It is inevitably a huge gamble . The risk is not so much in the military operation – the comparison between the massive American-British force assembling in Kuwait, loaded with deadly high-tech devices, and the small and under-equipped Iraqi army, much of which may not even prove reliable, means that the military sweep into Iraqi territory will prove unstoppable – virtually ‘no contest’. This will be so even without Turkish permission to attack Iraq from the north as well as the south, although that will surely be eventually forthcoming.
But the problems begin, as the Pentagon is now recognizing, when and if Saddam, in the last throw of a madman, uses his still hidden chemical and biological weapons, when and if he fires all his own oil wells, when and if fanatical anti-Americans rise up in other Gulf states, when and if a vast humanitarian disaster, with millions of fleeing, starving refugees, envelops the Middle East, when and if the occupied Iraqi state dissolves in a fury inter-tribal revenge and separatism, and when and if Al-Qaeda, the world-wide octopus of terror, finds new adherents and new strength to commit atrocities inside Western capitals.
None or all of these things could happen. The politically ‘safe’ course would be to hover on the sidelines, half hoping the Americans would draw back and leave the Inspectors to carry on with their interminable, and probably fruitless, work, and half sounding supportive, so as to be on the winning side – in case the Americans triumph.
But Blair has abandoned such an inglorious line. He has staked all. The half-whispered question even amongst his close supporters is ‘What is driving him?’, ‘Why has he chosen, at the height of a relatively successful premiership, to choose such a lone and risky path?’.
The answer is probably the simplest one – that he believes with almost evangelical fervour that the Iraqi regime is the embodiment of badness, that no Middle-East peace anywhere is possible while this remains the position, that Saddam is at the centre of the new global consortium of terror and that with every day that passes with his regime unchallenged the chances of another ‘nine-eleven’, maybe this time not in New York but in London, grow.
His articulation of this core belief – if that is what it is – has been confusing. First, the priority was upholding UN authority, then it was disarming Iraq after twelve years of defiance, then it was ‘the moral case for war against a tyranny’, then it was ‘removing Saddam’, echoing American longings for ‘regime change’.
But if the words have been unpersuasive the actions have been unmistakable. The UK is about to commit its armed forces to a war which only a miracle now can avert. And it is doing so largely through the will and conviction of one man. That, as he sees it, is the massive burden of true leadership. Commentators can analyze and qualify and equivocate, but leaders must decide. Right or wrong it is an astonishing display of political courage in a world where such qualities have been all but forgotten.