- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

LONDON, March 19 (UPI) — Britain's messy domestic politics are now quickly being cleared for war. Reluctantly, indeed, but Tuesday night's unprecedented vote in the House of Commons that gave Prime Minister Tony Blair a parliamentary mandate for military action against Iraq is today being matched by public opinion polls swinging in behind him.

Exactly 50 percent of people polled for the Daily Telegraph say they now support military action; hardly a majority, but that bumps to 52 percent who said they would have backed Blair if they had voted in Parliament. A week ago the British public was 65 percent opposed to committing British troops in a war with Iraq without a new U.N. resolution, with only 26 percent in favor.

The reason appears largely to be a fundamental human one: images of 19- and 20-year-old young men and women — the nation's sons and daughters — appearing increasingly on television in the Kuwaiti desert asking why the public at home was not supporting them more.

Furthermore, both public and politicians have been impressed by Blair's unwavering dedication to the "rightness" of his cause, and by France's perceived determination to scupper Blair's huge efforts to get a second U.N. resolution. Significantly, 68 percent of the British public in the Telegraph's poll now says President Jacques Chirac was wrong to say France would veto the second U.N. resolution, with only 21 percent saying he was right.

Rapidly swinging support behind Blair, however, has not translated into rapidly swinging support for President Bush. America still stands as a greater threat to world peace than Iraq in British public opinion, and a clear majority disapproves of the way Bush has handled the Iraq crisis so far — 38 percent saying 'good' or 'excellent' in the Telegraph poll, and 59 percent saying "poor" or "very poor."

With diplomacy now at an end, pragmatism and support for the armed forces in battle now takes precedence over principled opposition. That was apparent in the House of Commons even before Tuesday's impressive debate, as Leader of the House and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook resigned his Cabinet post.

Cook's brilliant rhetoric opposing the government may have carried some Labor Party waverers into the anti-war camp, but when Clare Short, the standard bearer for principled Labor Leftists, declined to quit her Cabinet post it appears she led the way for some agonized members of Parliament to reluctantly find their way back to Blair.

In the end 139 Labor MPs voted for an amendment which said that the case for war had not yet been established, more than the 121 who opposed military action last month and now the largest rebellion against a government by its own party in over a century. But it was less than Blair had feared, and the government was relieved it did not have to count on votes from the supporting Conservative opposition to carry its policy.

But anguished political crises like this are hardly rare for Britain, which usually resolves them with a massive dose of pragmatism — a greater factor in British national life than for many countries, perhaps notably the United States. Loyalty to the achievements and person of Margaret Thatcher, for instance, did not stop the Conservatives from removing her as party leader and prime minister in 1990 on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was, indeed, Labor's refusal to abandon its dogmatic Socialist stand on redistributing national wealth (Clause 4) that enabled the Tories to win the 1992 election, and its consequent pragmatic abandonment that gave Labor a landslide victory in 1997.

With Blair himself adopting pragmatic Conservative values over Socialist ones he is well aware that for all his principled leadership the Labor Party may yet remove him from power if this war goes badly.

Short's decision to stay in the government may therefore be seen as more of the modern British way of politics than Cook's resignation. For all her public complaints about Blair's Iraq policy being 'reckless' and private vows to leave the Cabinet if Blair went to war without a U.N. resolution, she chose to stay because she thought she could do more good to help rebuild Iraq after the war.

Short, as international development secretary, has tripled the U.K.'s foreign aid budget in her tenure and is seen as a powerful and passionate supporter of U.N. aid. Indeed, while she admitted that many of her supporters would feel she had let them down by not resigning — and the anti-war Daily Mirror tabloid's front page headline Wednesday was the single word "Revolting" over an unflattering photograph of her — Short was immediately on her way to New York to meet with U.N. officials over post-war aid to Iraq.

The Mirror, traditionally Labor's strongest supporter, has found itself the lone tabloid voice opposed to Blair over Iraq, but has declared that with war now inevitable it supports the troops and "all we can do is hope it will be over quickly." In a vicious 1,500-word attack on Blair, however, it laid out the Labor Left's view of him.

"While we will back our servicemen and women to the hilt as they risk their lives to fulfill the wishes of the British government, we will not so easily forgive our prime minister or his ministers for going to war in this way," said the paper on Tuesday. "It is not unpatriotic to say that this is all a terrible mistake. Nor is it unpatriotic to keep up our relentless attacks on the politicians who have made it.

"The Daily Mirror cannot hide disgust at this decision. It goes against everything Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed he would do in our name. It goes against everything the Labor Party has ever stood for. And it goes against the innate sense of fair play and justice that has always been the bedrock of British life.

"To be perfectly blunt, we are horrified at what is about to happen in Iraq."

Blair is therefore not yet politically home and dry. As an editorial in the Financial Times says, Blair's Parliamentary gamble has paid off but he has yet to win a majority support among the general population. "A short, successful war without unacceptable casualties is likely to be the price of popular endorsement," it summarized.

Under the circumstances a temptation for President Bush would seem to be to ensure the 45,000 British troops in the Gulf take secondary roles in joint operations with the United States. When that appeared to be suggested by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, however, there was outrage in the British military, public and politicians.

British military sources now say that British troops are, in fact, in the forefront of some of the early attacks, particularly on Basra where the tanks of the "Desert Rats" 7th Armored Brigade provide half the armored force for the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. While the British appear to be ready to defer to the Americans to seize Saddam himself, and even take the lead in battling into Baghdad, the British are expected to consider any attempt to deal them out of major roles in the war on Iraq as a national insult.

Casualties are to be expected. Given its rugged history the British, indeed, may absorb a surprisingly high number of casualties before Blair suffers politically at home. The question is Iraqi casualties. How many of those can he absorb before the Labor conscience rises up again?


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