It’s make-your-mind-up time, Prime Minister

When the fog of war eventually lifts, how different will the post-war landscape really be? Baghdad will be transformed, whatever happens. The rest of the Arab world might be altered too. But whether the war lasts six days or six months or six years, the international stalemate – the diplomatic quagmire – will still be there when it is over. Unexpectedly, the argument over war and weapons inspections in Iraq exposed enormous ideological rifts – between the United Nations and the United States, between Europe and the United States, between different European countries – and the war will not close them. Alone among world leaders, Tony Blair thinks that they can be made to go away.
That, at any rate, is the only conclusion it is possible to draw from the events of the last several days. On the one hand, the very existence of the UN appears, at the moment, to be of no interest to anyone in Washington. Last week, the text of a telegram written by Germany’s UN ambassador was circulating in Washington like a computer virus. The letter predicted that the United States, after fighting alone, would soon “remorsefully return” to the Security Council, and beg for help in rebuilding Iraq. The letter attracted howls of derision, and some anger.
Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, seemed to be in a similar mood when he was asked, at a Congressional hearing about the possibility of a UN-brokered ceasefire. “I have no idea what some country might propose, but there isn’t going to be a ceasefire,” he said. “At some point the war will end. And it will end at that point where that regime does not exist. At that point, there will be something of a ceasefire.”

Some of this is mere rhetoric – Rummie playing to the crowds – but it plays into politics too. No one here minds, particularly, if the UN helps with aid and reconstruction, but no one believes that post-war Iraq will be run by the UN either. Post-war plans, still vague and changeable, seem to include a period of American military occupation, an interim government run by Iraqis, and, ultimately, Iraqi elections. There is a “role” for the UN, perhaps, but no one quite knows what that will be, and no one is very interested in thinking about it – except, apparently, Tony Blair.
Rather extraordinarily, it was Mr Blair, not Colin Powell and not President George W Bush, who spent last week shuttling back forth between the White House and UN headquarters in New York, trying to patch things up, trying to paper over the cracks.
Emerging from his meeting with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Blair spoke optimistically about the impact of a Security Council resolution (yes, another one) re-starting the UN oil-for-food programme: “That will be the UN door open again. I think that will make a big difference to attitudes all around.” At a press conference he held with President Bush, he sounded the same note: “There’s no doubt at all that the United Nations has got to be closely involved in this process,” he said, although he added, ominously, that a “huge amount of details” have yet to be worked out.
Cheerful though this sounded, there seems to be a good deal more tension behind closed doors. As recently as last weekend, Mr Blair and Mr Bush privately disagreed about the shape of post-war Iraq. The Prime Minister wanted a “UN-led” protectorate and had promised Clare Short as much as a condition of her non-resignation. The President wanted nothing of the kind. During the course of last week, they patched it up, sort of. Mr Blair has conceded that it makes no sense for the UN to run Iraq until Iraq is secure. By that time, of course, the “US-led” protectorate will already be in place. For all practical purposes, Mr Bush has won the argument – although Mr Blair will surely try again.
He isn’t likely to succeed. For the disillusionment with the UN in America doesn’t come from mere petulance, or hurt feelings, or even jingoism, although there is certainly some of that around. At least some members of this administration believe the Security Council is an amoral, even immoral body, and would probably think so whether or not the Security Council had approved a resolution to invade Iraq. One of the Security Council’s five permanent members is a communist dictatorship, after all.
Another is a heavily authoritarian oligarchy. The leaders of a third fervently believe that the Security Council’s main task is to control not dictators with chemical weapons, but the president of the United States. That leaves America and Britain – and why does the American president need to travel to New York in order to talk to Tony Blair? The Security Council isn’t merely unnecessary, by this reckoning, it is dangerous. Contrast that to Mr Blair’s painstaking concern for the details of international law, to his solemn announcement, before the start of this war, of a list of previous resolutions which make it “legal” for Britain to fight in Iraq.
Oddly, some of the language Mr Blair has used, in recent days, does make it sound as if he knows he has made a stark choice, as if he knows how irreconcilable are the international divisions, and as if he knows how far apart the protagonists remain. Speaking to Parliament on the eve of war, he said that the decision to go to war in Iraq would “determine the pattern of politics for a generation”. But he had taken the decision and he hoped, he said, that “this House, as it has in our history so many times before, will not shrink from doing what is necessary and right”. He seemed, even, to know that he had chosen a British foreign policy instead of a common European foreign policy, and a strong, transparent transatlantic alliance over a vaguer set of multilateral relationships.
Most of the time, though, he still sounds more like his old self: desperate to square the circle, desperate to keep America and Britain together, desperate to bring America and Europe together, desperate for UN involvement, desperate to get back into the good graces of Jacques Chirac. Mr Blair’s problem, in the end, isn’t that he can’t make up his mind betweem “Europe” and America, or between multilateralism and the transatlantic alliance. The problem is that he still doesn’t believe that he will ever really have to make the choice.

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