Only our boys in the Foreign Office can sort this lot out – Old-fashioned diplomacy will heal the rift in the Western alliance

By Malcolm Rifkind

That Tony Blair is enmeshed in a crisis that might destroy his Government I can face with equanimity. That the British Prime Minister has put himself and his country between an irresistible force and an immovable object, deeply disturbs me.

He has wanted Britain to be a bridge between America and Europe. As has been remarked London bridge is now falling down. It might take Nato with it despite the weekend’s breakthrough on Turkey. That would leave President Saddam Hussein more cheerful than ever.

And yet there is an opportunity for Mr Blair to use traditional diplomacy to break this logjam and achieve a substantial degree of unity on the Security Council. If one puts on one side the conciliatory charm of Donald Rumsfeld and the Gallic acerbity of Dominique de Villepin one can identify common ground among the rubble.

The French have been careful not to rule out a military attack on Iraq if UN inspections fail to disarm Saddam. They acknowledge that President Bush’s uncompromising toughness has forced Saddam into more concessions than he has made for years. No one in Paris denies that the US threat of force was essential to this.

Likewise Washington means it when it emphasises that it would like to avoid war and that it is well aware of the damage that a unilateral attack without UN endorsement would do to its reputation in the Arab world and relations with its European allies. Only last week the Americans were stressing that they would accept Saddam’s voluntary exile as a way of resolving the crisis without bloodshed.

So there is no fundamental disagreement about the objective of disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and of its capability to create them. However, the French and their allies believe that this can be achieved by the current UN inspection process. Mr Bush and Mr Blair are intensely sceptical.

This is where Hans Blix becomes the key to progress. In his report to the Security Council he stated his conviction that the inspection process could disarm Saddam in the near future, but only if it received “immediate, active and unconditional co-operation” which was not yet the case.

British diplomats must seize on that statement and co-ordinate negotiations between the permanent members of the Security Council and Mr Blix on the terms of a new resolution. This resolution must be much more specific than the last. It must demand compliance, to Mr Blix’s satisfaction, within two or three weeks at most, with the likelihood of force if Saddam refuses.

For example, Mr Blix’s main concern is that the Iraqis have failed to account for the chemical and biological agents identified by the inspectors four years ago. As the inspectors have pointed out it is not their duty to find them. Iraq must prove that they have already been destroyed or hand them over for destruction.

Likewise, as the inspectors have demanded, there must be an acceptance, by Iraq, that their long-range missiles fall into the proscribed list and must be surrendered. Remaining Iraqi scientists who have not yet been interviewed must present themselves unconditionally. These and other specific obligations must be put into any new resolution.

Mr Blix has said that Baghdad has made concessions on process but has still to meet its obligations on substance. If France and Germany can acknowledge that those obligations must be met over the next three weeks, this would meet America’s concern that a further resolution must not merely provide an opportunity to procrastinate. The Americans are right to say that what is needed is not more inspectors but full compliance. Mr Blix agrees with them.

A tough, time-limited resolution will not be achieved without Britain. No one should doubt the deep damage that has already been done to transatlantic relations by a combination of American cavalier indifference to its allies’ concerns and France and Germany’s extraordinary foolishness in splitting Nato on the largely symbolic question of Patriot missiles for Turkey.

The Nato disagreement was resolved at the weekend but we should not get too euphoric about that. Although Germany and Belgium recanted they did so for tactical reasons, not because their basic position has changed. France was not even involved as the decision was taken in the defence policy committee, not the full Nato Council. France has not been represented there since de Gaulle’s time as she has never accepted Nato as an integrated military alliance. The harsh truth is Nato remains as divided as the Security Council.

Left to themselves the gulf between the Western allies will get wider and Saddam will be the only beneficiary. British diplomats under our Ambassador at the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, have the skill to deliver a compromise that will determine whether Saddam can be disarmed in the near future or whether, as the French have never ruled out, force may be necessary.

The stakes could not be higher. When Mr Bush threatened military intervention some months ago the downside appeared to be greater instability in the Middle East and a possible boost to Islamic terrorist organisations. Now, thanks to Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, Washington has become more disillusioned than ever with Nato and the aspiration of a single European foreign policy has become risible.

Britain’s bridge across the Atlantic looks shaky at the moment. To secure its foundations will need more than Mr Blair’s rhetoric. It will need professional diplomatic skill.

It was once remarked that diplomats were people who could be disarming especially when their country wasn’t. That should be their role and the Prime Minister must give them his full support. It is more than his survival which is at stake.

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