I am surprised there has been such little attention paid to the latest poll on UK attitudes to a war with Iraq. The figures are startling and given the nature of our Prime Minister extremely significant.
There is an impressive 72 percent support for military action if it backed by the UN but that then becomes only a miserly 20 percent if it is a bilateral US-UK effort.
Make no mistake – these figures are bad news for both hardcore hawks and softcore doves.
They are bad news for Blair because he knows he is probably not going to get a widely supported second resolution through the UN and so, if he sticks to his current line, will have to work on the 20 percent support for unilateral action – hardly the backing he would want.
The poll is bad news for the ‘anti-war’ campaigners because it shows that the case for action against Iraq is accepted by the vast majority of people. It seems the only gripe we have is that we want to see the UN rubber stamp it.
So what motivates the 50% whose support switches according to who mandates military action?
Frankly I doubt that the British public are really motivated by a strong desire to support the UN as the vehicle for global intervention.
We are not daft and we know that if it became a matter for the security council China, Russia and probably France could all employ a veto. Even in the general assembly the chances of getting broad support for an all-out attack are pretty slim – there are Arab states, Moslem states, dictatorships and all manner of dodgy regimes who do not want to assist in the creation of a global norm that the west has the right to take action against rogue states.
No, what I think this position shows is simply a desire on the part of the British people for us to be part of a broad coalition. We don’t want to be the only ones backing the US. We are starting to feel lonely in our ‘special relationship’, we want to spread the responsibility around. We know that it is right to liberate Iraq but we don’t want to be seen as America’s little sidekick.
I suspect there is an element of wounded national pride at play here. Reading some of the message boards populated by elements of the anti-American far left and I am struck by the constant references to the ‘humiliation’ of Blair being a ‘poodle’ of America.
Of course Blair denies he is a poodle of George Bush. He says has played himself into a position where he is the only foreign leader who Washington will listen to and he is right to an extent – he certainly is the only one who gets a good press in the States – just look at the reaction to Germany and France’s position (however much the US may misunderstand Germany in particular).
The problem is that the US have not yet shown much interest in listening to Blair’s agenda – the special relationship still looks a one-way street.
As Bruce Anderson puts it in the Independent today: “Far from being a partnership of equals, the special relationship has barely been a partnership at all. The Americans have been happy to have us with them, but only as long as we did their bidding. In terms of broad retrospect, the special relationship may seem harmonious; the detailed history makes it clear that the UK found it much harder to manage than most of our politicians were prepared to admit at the time. With the possible exception of the Falklands, there has been no instance of America supporting the UK when it was not in their interests to do so.”
Blair then needs a tangible result to show the public that his strategy of being ‘in the tent’ is working. There is not much point in having the best access to Bush if he still going to ignore you.
Of course the ‘anti-war’ camp refuse to acknowledge that Britain does have a separate agenda that it is trying to convince the Americans to listen to.
Yet you only need to browse through the speeches of Jack Straw in particular to realise that Britain is putting a settlement of the Israel-Palestine question right at the heart of the middle-east strategy in a way the US is not.
The attempted conference in London, wrecked by Sharon, was one example of this approach in practice. Tentative support for reformist elements in Iran is another sign that the Blair government seeks a broader settlement for the Middle East. With the possible exception of Colin Powell, the US administration do not show signs of having understood the vital need to deal with the Israel-Palestine issue as part of an overall post-Saddam package.
Even though it is a point often employed by those who will jump on any justification to do nothing about Saddam there is no doubt that the double-standards argument, in relation to Israel, is a major block to winning Arab support for an intervention against Iraq – or at the very least to undercutting outright hostility to the West.
And frankly those Arabs are right. It is incredible that the West can consider taking all the risks and costs involved in imposing democracy on Iraq yet still shies away from imposing peace on Israel and Palestine. Sharon and Arafat show just the kind of belligerence and lack of interest in UN resolutions, international norms and respect for human rights that merits an outside intervention.
There is a broad range of support globally for Britain’s position, particularly in Europe. And here we get to the grist of the issue. America may lament the lack of international support it is receiving at the moment but it has done very little to try and foster it. It has responded to some of the knee-jerk anti-Americanism in some parts of Europe with a childish knee-jerk anti-European position which, among other things, has badly weakened Blair’s hand.
Blair could be seen as being trapped between a rock and a hard place. But looked at another way he now has the perfect opportunity to show that his concept of Britain as a bridge between Europe and the US is a workable diplomatic reality and not just a nice soundbite.
If at Camp David this week Blair can succeed in winning Bush back to the need for a broad coalition and to give a very clear statement of war aims (which we are still sorely lacking) then he can go back to Europe and seek to bring the EU on board in some form.
That would be a huge achievement for Blair and Britain and one which would go along way to satisfying that large section of public opinion, uneasy at our junior partner role – but on top of that it would simply be the right way to go.