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Special Report: War in Iraq
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NEW! Subscribe to the daily War in Iraq or weekly Live Online E-Mail Newsletters and receive highlights and breaking news event alerts in your mailbox.


'Blair's War'
With Michael Sullivan
Executive Producer, Special Projects, FRONTLINE

and Wen Stephenson
Web site managing editor, FRONTLINE

Friday, April 4, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been fighting the biggest political battle of his career. Caught in the center of a high stakes political storm, he tried to personally bridge the gap between the United States and its European allies -- particularly France and Germany -- over the impending war in Iraq.

In "Blair's War," airing Thursday, April 3, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE examines the roots of the discord within the Western Alliance, the perilous role Blair has played, and the stakes for him and the West should this old alliance fall apart.

Michael Sullivan, FRONTLINE's exeuctive producer for special projects, and FRONTLINE Web site managing editor Wen Stephenson were online Friday, April 4, at 2 p.m. ET, to talk about Blair's huge political gamble.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


The transcript follows.


washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us, Michael. In the time between when this film was finished and today, much has changed in terms of the war in Iraq. Once the shooting began, British public opinion swung to supporting the action and Blair's role -- if not completely, considerably more than the opposition he faced. Troops have faced some stiff resistance and questions have arisen about U.S. military planning. How do you think such fast-moving events will affect Blair's standing -- in fact, his political survival?

Michael Sullivan: I think the important consideration is to look at this question when the war is over and that will tell us the story of Bush's and Blair's political future, as well as the future of the Western alliance. It does matter what happens on the ground. Whether coalition forces find Weapons of Mass Destruction and what the prospects for a free and prosperous Iraq look like. Blair still has a large majority in Commons and he will likely survive unless the war is a true disaster.

I think the much more serious question is what happens to the Western Alliance and whether that is repairable. More importantly, what the power relationship is between the U.S. and countries like Germany and France. Will they become an opposition to the US or fall behind US leadership? Those are the great unknowns.



Laurel, Md.: Why didn't Powell and/or Blair anticipate the French position, i.e., "the ambush," at the UN? Was Powell that sure that the Europeans would go for military action?

Michael Sullivan: I think what he didn't anticipate was that day they would suddenly bring that subject up as opposed to terrorism, which was scheduled to be discussed. We put it in the film because it was the day the U.S. realized how intense the opposition was from France and Germany and the likelihood of a compromise was growing dimmer.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Will you folks do a follow-up on Blair's war when the next general election comes up? Seems to me the proof of his gamble will be whether Labour stands for him when he again stands for Labour. Thanks much.

Michael Sullivan: We will if it is a big story at the time. He may not even run again. Who knows. Perhaps he has had enough or he may decide for other reasons to move on. Or he may be in political trouble. I think it is premature to decide to do another film. He may not be an issue then.


Arlington, Va.: In watching the film, I got a great sense of Blair's obvious political courage, which is impressive. I'd forgotten that he was in New York after Sept. 11 before President Bush was. The one thing I didn't understand was what exactly motivated Blair to side so firmly with the U.S., particularly in the face of such stringent European opposition. This is a huge gamble for him, and clearly (in my opinion) he had the right idea -- al Qaeda first, Iraq could wait. I'm not sure I really understand why he took such a big gamble with Bush.

Wen Stephenson: First, it is important to understand Blair's record on foreign policy. He had strongly supported intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and he was seen as someone who saw his foreign policy as "ethically based." He made the argument for intervening in Kosovo as fighting a "war of values not interests." The point is that he had already established a highly principled foreign policy that made a justification for interventions such as the one in Kosovo. Secondly, he is also seen as a man of Europe. He has a lot at stake with Britain's relationship with the Europe and whether or not Britain further integrates with the EU. Many observers will say that Blair saw his special role in this to be the one who could bridge the gap between Western Europe and the U.S. on these issues of global security and the use of military force in the case of Iraq. I think you could say that he had to take this gamble. He had in a way set himself up for this. He had created an identity for himself as Europe's strongest proponent of the use of military force to correct the wrongs of the world, but at the same time he had set himself up

Michael Sullivan: I would add that I don't' think he saw this as a big gamble. He was convinced he could bring the Europeans along. He didn't miscalculate about Bush. But he did about France who he clearly thought would make a lot of trouble as they always have, extract some kind of price and then join the war. On that he was dead wrong.

Wen Stephenson: So there is actually an irony here. Blair, a man who had set himself up as the most European of Britons, ends up alienated from Europe and those in his party who are pro-Europe and finds himself closer to those in the United States and an administration whose policies are anathema of those in his own government. He finds himself a strange bedfellow with the Bush administration. That is the crux of his dilemma. The intense hostility to Blair is actually a hatred of Bush. The worse thing Blair has done in the eyes of his party is to have become so close to Bush and a conservative U.S. administration.


Raleigh, N.C.: Do you think Blair had an "out" upon the failure of the second U.N resolution? Secondly, do you think the course of action would have turned out differently had Blair refused to join the war effort upon the failure of the second U.N. resolution?

Michael Sullivan: No he did not have an out because he had made a pledge in convincing Bush to go through the UN that if their efforts through the UN failed he would go to war with Bush against Iraq. I would suspect that Bush would have gone to war absolutely alone. They deeply appreciate the presence of Britain, it certainly gives them some political cover, but from everything I can tell they were so determined to execute a regime change in Iraq that the US would have gone alone if necessary.


Richmond, Va.: You've discussed how Blair's actions have affected Europe's relationship to the U.S. in some detail. What about the relationship between Europe and Britain? How was it affected by Blair's war?

Michael Sullivan: It has intensified British public opinion against the US without a doubt, but because Blair still completely runs his own government and dominates the policy of Britain, at a political level there has been no practical damage yet to the US-British relationship.


Vancouver, B.C., Canada: How did you get the wonderfully candid remarks from Blair's staff? They certainly added to the authenticity of your report. This is a wonderfully informative and thoughtful piece of journalism. Congratulations!

Michael Sullivan & Wen Stephenson: Thank you.

Michael Sullivan: The key interviews in that regard were Sir Christopher Meyer, who had just left his post in March as British Ambassador to Washington, and therefore was much freer to talk than anyone in the government. Secondly, Peter Mandelson, who is currently out of the cabinet government, was also much freer to speak. It was happenstance that these two men were able to speak so candidly at this time.


Silver Spring, Md.: While the U.S. administration portrays France, especially, and Germany as cowards for not supporting us, how has Mr. Blair portrayed these countries to his people? How does the people of Britain other European countries view France and Germany?

Michael Sullivan: Surprisingly British public opinion of France, which historically has been quite antagonistic, has mellowed. At the level of public opinion I think that generally the British people identify more with France and other Western European nations than they do the Untied States -- especially George Bush's United States. Although there is a great alliance between Britain and America at a political level, culturally the British people lean more toward Europe. I was in London last week editing the show with the producers and in that time did not encounter a single Britain in my own travels that was for the war -- not a single person. Now that is an unscientific sample, and in fact I think about half the people support the war according to the opinion polls, but they were very upset at the U.S. for having dragged their Prime Minister toward this conflict with Iraq.


Mifflinburg, Pa.: When you remove yourself from the bravado, it is clear that Europe's objection to the war has nothing to do with concern over human rights or differing visions on handling international issues. EU proponents want to weaken nationalism in order to strengthen their own federalist system and build a superpower. Europe's leaders are simply playing to their public's considerable anti-American and anti-Semitic bigotry. In truth, Europeans care very little about human rights of others. They only care about becoming a superpower. After all, there are no massive demonstrations against Tibetan or Chechnya occupation. It is one big European lie, and American leftists are buying it.

Michael Sullivan: I think that is an extreme position. I would recommend Robert Kagan's book "Of Paradise and Power." There are two big points there. Since the US is so much stronger militarily than Europe, both entities have a very different view of the importance of using military force in foreign affairs. The other big idea in the book is that Europe, who for centuries was the big problem area in the world now feels it has solved its nationalism problems by lashing Europe together with laws and institutions. They feel they have solved their own problem of war and now believe that this is the solution to the world's problems as well. There is a very huge ideological difference about the use of war and force. It is not just a pose by either side -- it is a terribly real difference in belief systems.

Wen Stephenson: I would add that for a different view of Kagan's thesis read a Web exclusive email debate between Robert Kagan and a British Journalist named Will Hutton, former editor and chief of the Observer and currently a columnist for the Observer. They are duking it out online now.

As far as American leftists "buying it," I think we know that one can't just characterize the left or liberals in the U.S., or in Britain and Europe for that matter, as being all of one mind on the question of war in Iraq. Again I would point people to a discussion where three prominent intellectuals, British writer Timothy Garton Ash and American writers Paul Berman and David Rieff, are talking about the liberal divide. There is a serious liberal case to be made for going to war with Iraq and Tony Blair has made it. In fact one of the people we interviewed, Paul Berman, refers to Blair as the leader of the free world. Much of the liberal or left case for war rests on fighting on behalf of democracy and human rights, as Blair argued for the Kosovo war for example, but there are many on the left who are quite skeptical obviously of the US and Britain's ability to bring democracy in such a way. They see it as liberal imperialism.


Richmond, Va.: You've mentioned that the hatred of Blair is a hatred of his alliance with Bush several times. Do Bush and Blair currently have ANY European support? If so, from where, and why?

Michael Sullivan: They have a lot of support from the governments and people in Eastern Europe -- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria. They have governmental support although not public support from Spain, Italy and Portugal. So Europe is actually split on this at a governmental level and a public level -- which is part of the problem with the EU. They don't have a cohesive foreign policy.

I suspect the big battle in Europe for the months and years to come will be whether or not the EU should become the main opposition to US foreign policy. France and Germany seem to want it to be, but does the rest of the EU feel that strongly that they will go along? There is a very interesting interview with Keith Richburgh, who is the Post correspondent in Paris, who says in the film that he had a recent conversation with a senior official in the French foreign ministry who said - and I am paraphrasing - this is not About Iraq, we don't give a damn about Iraq, this is about who will call the shots in the world. Will it be the United States who will alone decide which regimes will stay or fall or will it be the Security Council and the 5 permanent members who will decide. That is clearly what France feels the issue is.

Wen Stephenson: I believe that was also the stance of Blair in a way, that is should the security council and the international community that should provide the authority and legitimacy for a war like this one, but that it is essential to make sure that the United States comes along. The difference between Blair and the French is that the French were willing to break with the US on this point, whereas Tony Blair felt that the price of such a rupture going forward would be too great and that it is essential to convince the US to act multilaterally within the process of the UN. Yet he failed.

Michael Sullivan: Of course there was another gap between Blair and Chirac. Chirac clearly didn't think that Saddam was as dangerous to other nations. That was the other gap that drove them apart at the end of the day.

Wen Stephenson: That needs to be emphasized. Blair isn't only an idealist, he saw the tremendous threat posed by the proliferation of WMDs and the coming together, potentially, with terrorism. In someway the real meeting of minds between Blair and Bush was on that point. After September 11 the issue of WMD in the hands of "rouge nations" such as Iraq has to be dealt with.


Michael Sullivan:
This gap that has emerged between Europe and America is a big deal. This is, in essence, a big power play on the part of the United States and France in particular for a change in the way the world is run. The big thing to watch in the aftermath of the war in Iraq is how that political battle, which revealed itself here, is ultimately decided. That is, will the U.S. in the aftermath place itself further within the international community or apart from it. Will France in particular be able to organize a large chunk of the world in opposition to the United States or will much of the world decide America is the leader and fall in line beside it and behind it? That is why this story is so important.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company