More loyal than Bush

Print edition : October 13, 2001

British Prime Minister Tony Blair emerges as the most hawkish of European leaders in the current crisis.

AN hour after President George W. Bush formally declared the "first war of the 21st century", British Prime Minister Tony Blair, looking properly "presidential" himself, broke the grim news to his countrymen in a televised address from 10 Downing Street. As the leader of the only U.S. ally until then to join the military action, he was conscious of the historic significance of the moment - a moment for which he had been preparing the country for two weeks. "This is a moment of utmost gravity for the world," he declared as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Minister Geoff Hoon looked on and, outside, a group of rain-drenched anti-war demonstrators denounced it as "a war by the richest nations against the poorest nations".

A sombre Blair, his every word dripping with self-righteousness, warned that this was going to be a long journey. "I cannot disclose how long this wave of action will last. But we will act with reason, and resolve," he declared, adding that "there would be no let-up or rest until our objectives are met in full". And the objective was: to pursue those responsible for the September 11 outrage, "eradicate" Osama bin Laden's network of terrorism, and take action against his hosts, the Taliban.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair chairs a special Cabinet meeting in Downing Street on October 8. Second from left is Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.-KIERAN DOHERTY/REUTERS

The public reaction was marked by a sense of inevitability and despite the overwhelming support for the view that the atrocities of September 11 should not go unpunished, there was scepticism over whether waging war on a country that was already on its knees was the best solution. "Much of the world remains deeply sceptical about this campaign, to put it mildly," The Guardian commented, but the more gung-ho The Times justified it saying that Britain's interests were "as fully and directly engaged in this struggle" as the U.S', the main victim of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Meanwhile, there is widespread anxiety over the safety of British troops, and commentators say that public opinion could swing sharply if there are large casualties on the British side.

With the die cast, the question to which everyone wants to know the answer is: how long will the agony last? In Lenin's famous words, where do we go from here?

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No other major Western leader has embraced so completely Bush's black-and-white world view as Blair has. Since the September 11 outrage, Blair has been like a man possessed in his support for Bush's pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. He has annoyed his partymen, irritated many of his peers in Europe and provoked anger among peaceniks by advocating blind endorsement of any military action the U.S. contemplates.

Blair's critics say he has seized the moment to carve for himself a place in history books. ("Is Blair playing Churchill or Gladstone?" asked The Guardian). And there is palpable impatience, even among his admirers, with his increasingly presidential style. This was sharply reflected in a cartoon in The Times, showing a mousy Blair climbing up the "Royal Air Force One" embossed with the seal of "the President of the United Kingdom".

Blair is widely seen to have emerged as the most hawkish of European leaders in the current crisis and his speech at the recent Labour Party conference justifying nearly for an hour why it is important to go for the kill in Afghanistan, surprised even the Americans. "Among the U.S. public, Mr. Blair is seen as having out gung-hoed Mr. Bush," reported The Independent.

Blair took to shuttle diplomacy twice in recent weeks to firm up support for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, and even his detractors will find it hard to deny him credit for softening up his European allies, many of whom were extremely wary - some still are - of handing over a "blank cheque" to Washington. Initially, France and Germany were particularly queasy about unconditionally signing up to Bush's "first war of the 21st century", which he portrayed as a "crusade" with its unfortunate connotation of an anti-Islamic expedition. Their reluctance to be seen as endorsing what sounded like a "civilisational" clash between the Christian West and the Islamic East was understandable as both countries have large Muslim populations and both have been trying to improve their relations with the Arab world. France in particular has been extremely critical of the sanctions against Iraq, which, at one stage, was repeatedly mentioned as a possible target of a U.S.-led offensive. There were fears that any attempt to target a Muslim country on the pretext of pursuing "Islamic terrorists" could fuel a widespread anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of the September 11 events.

Even such strong advocates of military action as Chris Patten, a prominent European Union Commissioner, cautioned against doing anything that might end up vindicating Samuel Huntington's theory of the "clash of civilisations". There were dissenting voices in Belgium and Italy as well, with calls for a more cautious approach. The opposition was not to cracking down on terrorists but to any indiscriminate action that could lead to civilian casualties, alienate the Muslim world and breed "more Osamas". (In fact, for the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO, invoked a special provision which declares that an act of war against one NATO member should be treated as an attack on all its members.) The action, it was repeatedly emphasised by European leaders, should be "proportionate" and "targeted". French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder, while endorsing the larger aim of fighting terrorism and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the September 11 tragedy, conveyed their reservations to Bush when they met him.

It fell to Blair, derisively nicknamed Bush's "chief whip" in Europe, to get the sceptics on board. He made a whirlwind visit to European capitals before flying out to the U.S. to meet Bush, who was believed to be keen on a personal meeting with his most loyal ally on this side of the Atlantic. On his way back home he stopped in Brussels to brief a special meeting of European leaders and persuade them to unite behind Washington. The coalition looks less wobbly than it did a few weeks ago partly because of his efforts and partly because of the European leaders' own interaction with the U.S. administration, but deep reservations about giving a carte blanche to the U.S. remain.

Zahir Shah, former King of Afghanistan, at his Rome residence.-VANDEVILLE ERIC/GAMMA

In London, what is seen as Blair's most important "triumph" was getting Iran to shed its inhibition about being seen in the company of the U.S. Encouraged by Iran's condemnation of the attacks on the U.S. and its hostility to the Taliban regime, he made a "historic" telephone call to President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, to seek his support for the coalition. This led to Jack Straw's "historic" visit to Teheran. It was after more than 20 years that a British Foreign Secretary had visited the Iranian capital and, predictably, there was a great deal of hype. Straw stressed that by publicly attacking the Taliban for sheltering bin Laden, Iran had demonstrated "very vocally that this is not a fight with Islam". The visit was hailed as a major breakthrough in nudging the Muslim world into joining the Western alliance against Afghanistan.

Within hours, however, the "hawks" in Iran asserted themselves and the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khameini, ruled out any cooperation with Washington. He took strong exception to Bush's line that those who were not with the U.S. in the current crisis were against it. The curt message from Teheran was that while it opposed terrorism it would not take dictation from White House. Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia declared that it would not allow its bases to be used for an attack on Afghanistan, and since then enthusiasm among other Muslim countries has also waned. They fear that too close an identification with a U.S.-led assault on a Muslim country could be exploited by in-house extremist groups to stir up trouble.

It is believed that a military operation is delayed because of the growing "nervousness among (the U.S.') key regional allies", as The Guardian put it, referring to the "last-minute doubts" in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Uzbekistan about allowing their territory to be used as a base for an offensive against Kabul. The newspaper quoted a U.S. news agency as saying that the U.S. and Britain put off their plans following objections from these countries.

THE public opinion in the U.K. is overwhelmingly behind Blair's aggressive approach. A poll indicated that 63 per cent of Britons believe that their country is at "war" - an impression clearly fed and reinforced by combative media headlines and television images of British troops and U.S. Marines readying to go into action. Sociologists detect in this a sign of "longing" among a generation that missed the two World Wars to see some action, finally. With something approximating a war hysteria sweeping Britain, liberal voices are struggling to be heard.

The mood is such that if you are not with the war-mongers then you are either an "apologist for terrorists" or on the side of the "loony Left". Any criticism of the U.S. is virtually taboo. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently took the unprecedented step of apologising to a former U.S. Ambassador for an edition of Question Time on which a number of participants sharply criticised the U.S.' foreign policy and suggested that America should ask itself why so many people across the world "hate" it so much. Blair, in his Labour conference speech, said it was "shameful" to criticise the U.S. at this juncture.

Widespread unease over committing British troops to a "U.S.-imposed" military action, however, remains and some of the damaging criticism has come from Blair's own colleagues. Clare Short, Minister for International Development, has been particularly scathing. Breaking ranks with her Cabinet colleagues, she has attacked the rhetoric of "retribution" and warned that any action that smacks of revenge would mean playing into the hands of fanatics who want to provoke a conflict. "I think we all understand that America feels so angry that they want to get somebody, but you can't have lots of planes and guns and ships and make everybody do their bidding," she said.

A number of Labour backbenchers, including at least three former Ministers, have cautioned against any "wrong" action that might result in heavy casualties. The "evidence" presented to British Parliament linking bin Laden with the September 11 tragedy has been widely questioned on legal and diplomatic grounds. While its diplomatic credibility in convincing the sceptics, particularly the Arab world, about the strength of the Western alliance's case against the fugitive terrorist is doubted, legal experts have described it as too thin on facts to stand up in court.

The Guardian said that the 17-page dossier does not amount to a "smoking gun", which would point to bin Laden."More than three weeks after the Bush administration said it would produce evidence against bin Laden, the reality is that Mr. Blair's case comes down to two words: trust me," it said. The Times said: "There is nothing hard enough in it to convince sceptics in either London or Washington, let alone Kabul." The argument that the "real" evidence is too sensitive to release is unlikely to wash with those who are being asked to join the anti-Kabul coalition. There has also been criticism of the "selective" sharing of the full evidence, with the countries most likely to be affected by a military action in Afghanistan being virtually told that they cannot be trusted with it. Bluntly put, only the "trustworthy" Western allies of the U.S. have been taken into full confidence. A representative of the Arab League in London told a BBC programme that he was perplexed that the countries that needed to be convinced the most and whose support was crucial to the success of any military action were precisely the ones who were being treated like second-class citizens.

Meanwhile, there is speculation about the exact aim of the military action. The British government has repeatedly stated that the primary purpose is not to topple the Taliban regime but if it comes in the way of getting to bin Laden it should be prepared to face the consequences. However, it is believed that the removal of the Taliban is very much on the agenda and the 86-year-old ailing former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who lives in exile in Rome, is being wheeled out to head a "broad-based and democratic" government in tandem with the Northern Alliance. The Alliance leaders have already met Shah in the presence of a U.S. delegation and he is said to be more than happy to be resurrected. His once-desolate home in Rome has suddenly become a hub of activity.

In Britain, Ahmed Wali Massoud, brother of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated military leader of the Northern Alliance, is much in demand. Massoud has his own agenda: he has told the U.S. and its allies not to get their hands dirty in Afghanistan but, instead, fund and support the resistance which is already going on in Afghanistan. "This (Afghanistan) is our country, we know the terrain, we have got experienced fighters and the world community has got resources," he told The Guardian, suggesting that with a little money and arms assistance from the West, the Northern Alliance rebels can topple the Taliban and deliver bin Laden.

But the West has its own ideas and the latest thinking reportedly is to get rid of the Taliban through a diplomatic coup rather than getting bogged down in a protracted military operation. It is now virtually admitted that the Western intelligence agencies have no clue to bin Laden's whereabouts and it would be foolish to pursue him "blindly". A friendly regime in Kabul is seen as a safer route to the fugitive terrorist.

Blair's expedition to Pakistan was aimed precisely at softening up Islamabad and breaking down its resistance to the idea of overthrowing the Taliban and replacing it with a broad coalition that could include moderate Taliban elements such as Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's willingness to consider a post-Taliban scenario is regarded by observers in Britain as a major breakthrough. Commentators say this is the first time that Musharraf has signalled that he is prepared to "countenance the prospect of a post-Taliban regime".

Blair's latest diplomatic voyage, which included visits to Russia and India, besides Pakistan, has been hailed as a success in getting all the three countries to back the U.S.-led coalition's action. The real hard business, however, was done in Moscow and Islamabad, with New Delhi getting a walk-on role in recognition of its full-throated support for the coalition's aims. The visit to India was intended to remove New Delhi's misgivings about a perceived pro-Pakistan tilt in the West's approach to the current crisis and to address its concerns over cross-border terrorism.

It has become a cliche to say that after September 11 the world would never be the same again. In Europe this means a harsher immigration regime, more powers for the police to crack down on suspected extremists, and curbs on some of the "rights" that citizens had begun to take for granted. Britain, people have been told, is to be rid of its image as a "haven" for terrorists even if it means compromising on some of the freedoms that Britons have traditionally enjoyed. This is the price a society pays when some of its denizens, admittedly in good faith, start to abuse the system.

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