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Confronting Iraq: Britain
With Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, March 20, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

How is Prime Minister Tony Blair's backing of the U.S. led war against Iraq sitting with the British people? What additional fallout is expected in the wake of Labor Party parliamentary leader and former foreign secretary Robin Cook's resignation? Has Blair been politically wounded by his staunch support of military action?

Washington Post foreign correspondent Glenn Frankel was online live from London to discuss the mood in Britain to the war in Iraq.

Frankel, who has been with The Washington Post since 1979, spent nine years as a foreign correspondent in Southern Africa, Jerusalem and London and served as deputy national editor and a reporter on the investigative staff. He was editor of The Washington Post Magazine from 1998-2002, and is the author of two books, including "Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).

The transcript follows.

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.

Chicago, Ill.: I keep seeing reports that British officials were "stunned" by last night's attacks. What exactly happened with that? Was Downing Street not notified in advance? Did we just go ahead and try to assassinate Hussein (prompting retaliatory missile attacks against U.S. and British positions in Kuwait) without even notifying the British in advance? Is this indicative of any larger problem? Thanks.

Glenn Frankel: First off, let me say that as we've moved to a new phase in the conflict with Iraq, so have we moved to a new phase in US-European relations. The diplomatic wrangling is over for now, but the divisions are clearer. What's also clearer to me is that the real issue on the table hasn't only been how to deal with Saddam Hussein, but rather how to deal with Washington: its power, its rhetoric and its post-9/11 view of the world. And this is where France's Chirac and Britain's Blair differ so markedly. Both might agree that it's important to control US power by keeping it tethered to international institutions, but they have disagreed dramatically on how best to do so. And it seems fair to suggest that both, on some level, have failed.
But to deal with your question in Chicago, British defense secretary Geoff Hoon says he was aware in advance of this morning's attack, and Downing Street says Tony Blair was informed two hours in advance. They deny the Reuters report that Britain was totally uninvolved in the planning. I have no independent knowledge of who's right or wrong on this. But the dispute may reflect Britain's discomfort with being America's junior partner in this war. The British want to be consulted and want to be seen as equal partners (witness the strong negative reaction here last week to Donald Rumsfeld's suggestion that the U.S. might go it alone). Anything that gives a contrary impression is greeted here with real dismay.

Laurel, Md.: If this war is so unpopular among British citizens, how could the House of Commons support it by nearly 3-to-1? Do the legislators expect public opinion to shift?

Glenn Frankel: There were a lot of reasons for the 3 to 1 margin. It's a parliamentary system, and the prime minister has extraordinary powers over his own backbenchers---much more than the president has over recalcitrant congressmen in the U.S. The PM controls committee assignments, cabinet posts and sub-posts and much other patronage. Also, Blair has the almost complete support of the opposition Conservative Party. Blair worked very hard to win over reluctant lawmakers; he also showed that he had worked tirelessly, although unsuccessfully, for a second UN resolution. And he managed to press President Bush to make a commitment on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all these reasons, he won a solid majority in the House of Commons, even though an unprecedented one-third of his own Labor Party members voted against him.

Austin, Tex.: What are Blair's motives? He's a master politician, doing something he knows is unpopular and risky. Maybe it's a strategic decision to align more with the U.S. than with Europe? But if it's just that, he could just have supported the U.S. in less dangerous ways (in voting at the UN, etc.) But he didn't just do that. He sent troops -- and not just a token number.
My only answer is that he really, passionately believes that this war is moral and necessary. Is it that simple?
(This is important to me because when I see a political figure taking an unpopular stand at considerable risk to himself, it tends to make me more willing to support the war than I would otherwise be.)
I sure wish Blair would give Bush some lessons on public speaking.

Glenn Frankel: Blair certainly is articulate and skilled at expressing his views and feelings in thoughtful ways. I think he does deeply believe that the war is moral and necessary. And he believes that it is almost always in Britain's national interest to stand beside the U.S. But he also feels that the way to influence Washington and keep it firmly within the community of nations is through partnership, not confrontation. This is where he differs so widely from Chirac. From his speeches, I gather that Blair thinks the U.S. could be dangerous if it feels isolated and friendless. He succeeded in steering Pres. Bush to the U.N. last fall. But he failed to gain a second resolution or more time for weapons inspections to work. Analysts here suggest he misread the intransigence of the French and of the hawks in the Bush administration. And he just plain ran out of time.

Arlington, Va.: How do you go from mass sympathy to virile loathing so fast unless you already had a lot of pent-up hatred? It's true we've squandered good will, BUT SO HAVE THE EUROPEANS. They have lost the respect of moderate Americans because it is clear to us that they have no ability to distinguish between criticism and bigotry towards the U.S. I used to respect Europe, but their anti-Americanism has proven to me that they are unworthy of diplomatic ties, let alone friendship.

Glenn Frankel: The anger you're feeling is reciprocated throughout much of Europe. The divide is deep. The question is how it can be bridged after the conflict ends---and whether both sides will even try. Certainly Blair will seek to be the bridge between Europe and America to bring them back together. Euros and Americans share many values, but their interests seem to be diverging---especially over the question of American power.

Virginia: Should the war not be as "routine" and fast as Blair is hoping for, is there any chance that the fallout would be big enough that he would be removed from office?

Glenn Frankel: I think Britons, like many Americans, tend to rally around their leader in times of war. So certainly Blair's approval ratings will continue to rise. If the war drags on and becomes messy---large-scale Iraqi civilian casualties or major British-American casualties---then Blair could be in serious political jeopardy. There are many in his own Labor Party who would love to get rid of him. They've never been terribly fond of him, but they've ridden his political skills to power. If he continues to succeed, they'll continue to support him, no matter how grudgingly. But if things go badly wrong....

Bangalore, Karnataka, India: Dear Sir,

My belief is that Britain being one of the most powerful countries in Europe, outside the EU, will find itself more isolated than ever in Europe after supporting the United States in spirit and action in the current conflict.

I would appreciate your comments please!

Thank you.

Glenn Frankel: It depends on how you define "Europe." Certainly the gap with France and Germany is widening---although Britain has been careful to focus its fire on the French, not the Germans. Then there's a host of new and coming members of the European Union---the 10 nations largely from the former Soviet satellites. They're much more pro-US and pro-Blair. Blair would love to be their friend and quasi-leader in the New Europe. Time will tell.

Florida: What is the mood in England?

Glenn Frankel: There's a degree of ambivalence, as I suggested earlier. The British impulse is to support the boys in the field, even if many people harbor serious doubts about this particular conflict. But they also feel a bit powerless. They know America is in charge of this war, and will pick the time, place and method. The Brits hope it'll be quick and precision-targeted, with as little damage to Iraqi civilians and infrastructure as possible.
I should add that there's a great mistrust of U.S. leaders, from the president through Rumsfeld, with Colin Powell perhaps the sole exception. This lack of faith in our motives and our diplomatic finesse makes it even harder for many Britons to deal with the moment. They'd like it to be over very very soon.

Washington, D.C.: According to everything I've read, It's a lot more anti-Bush than anti American, Several Americans abroad were quoted as saying they are well treated and well received. I have heard and read from several sources that much of Europe felt that the current administration became bullying and heavy handed from almost the day it took office.

Glenn Frankel: There's very little hatred directed at individual Americans. Even in Paris, we're still well received. But the line between anti-Bushism and anti-Americanism is fuzzy. Those who question constantly U.S. motives, or who believe U.S. policy is in the hands of a small, pro-Israel cabal, or who say we'll plant evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or who accuse the U.S. of genocide---are they anti-Bush or anti-American? Or both? You'll have to decide for yourself.

Wheaton, Md.: Tony Blair is a true hero for not trying to "Neville Chamberlain" his way out of the conflict. It sure is nice to see his popularity improving.

Glenn Frankel: One reader's sentiment. Blair certainly likes to think of himself as Churchill, standing alone but firm for principle.

Santa Barbara, Calif.: Judging from the support that Blair has been receiving from the Conservative party, it seems he could stand a very substantial revolt from the Labor party. It therefore seems that the Iraq war would have to go extremely badly before Blair would be ousted. There would have to be thousands of casualties and/or a full-year battle.
If Blair rides through this crisis, it would also seem that he would recover his standing completely.
What say you?

Glenn Frankel: Having Conservative Party support is a double-edged sword. No Labor Party leader would feel comfortable relying upon the opposition to stay in power. I do agree that the war would have to go pretty badly for Blair to be ousted. But I also believe that he's been wounded politically, and that unless he scores a spectacular success militarily, with a good followup rebuilding of Iraq and no increase in terrorism here, the wounds will linger. Remember Margaret Thatcher. She won three stunning electoral victories, but was dumped by her own party when its members decided she might take them to defeat. The same thing could happen to Blair someday.

Los Gatos, Calif.: What are the near term implications of the French-British strife -- for people commuting from one side to the other through the Chunnel trains, for businesses, for trade, for European Union related issues etc.? Do the British believe that the U.S. will help them in the long run if they find themselves estranged from the rest of Europe?

Glenn Frankel: There few or no short term business or commercial implications, so far as I can see. The European Union is a free trade and free travel zone. The British see themselves as straddling both the Channel and the Atlantic. They want to be everyone's partner. Blair is the most committed pro-European prime minister in decades. He'd even like to bring the Euro monetary system to Britain. He's hoping to continue on with the European unity project. The council of leaders is meeting tonight in Brussels to discuss how to proceed with unity. Blair, despite the opening of hostilities, will be there. So will Chirac. It should be an interesting dinner conversation.

Austin, Tex.: A somewhat off-the-wall question --

In the U.S. there is often comment about who joins the armed forces. (Relatively high numbers of minorities, people from less-wealthy families, many more southerners than New Yorkers, almost no sons/daughters of Congressional Representatives, etc.)

What's the situation in Britain? Who enlists in, say, the RAF? Does the "average" Briton know anyone in the forces?

Glenn Frankel: Actually, that's an excellent question. I'd say it's somewhat similar to the US---enlistment tends to come from the blue-collar class and from many smaller towns. Many upper middle class folks know no one who has served. But like the US, people tend to rally around the troops in time of conflict. And there's a great martial tradition, and great pride in the military.

Jonesboro, Ga.: Generally speaking, does the British public show any kind of remorse or guilt for being the cause of all these unrest in the world. What with their colonizing and lumping people together (who otherwise have nothing in common) they inevitably have contributed in no small measure to the hatred and continuous animosity in the middle east and Africa -- for their own selfish economic gains. The chicken finally has come home to roost! Yes, they should contribute finances and manpower to fighting the demons they created in the first place.
Go America! Go Marines! Go Navy! Go Army! You are helping right a wrong in Iraq.

Glenn Frankel: Another reader's point of view. Actually there's been a lot in the British press lately about the making of modern Iraq---how British officials drew the borders between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, how they lumped together the Sunnis, Shiia and Kurds and gave power to a Hashemite monarch from Jordan, and how they ruthlessly put down the ensuing rebellion with air power.

Virginia: What are your three or four favorite British newspapers?

Glenn Frankel: They're all different in that they all are addressed to different audiences, so it's necessary to read them all. I get the Times and the Guardian at home, but I also look at the other broadsheets every day. And you can't get a sense of the public pulse without at least sampling the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and, of course, the incredible Sun. They're all a moveable, sometimes toxic, feast.

Boston, Mass.: Tacking on to Austin, Tex.'s question -- isn't there a tradition though of aristocratic families sending their sons into the military? Or has that long passed?

Glenn Frankel: It's generally passed away, although I know there are many illustrious exceptions.

Manassas, Va.: How much more difficult would this situation be if we didn't have British support?

Glenn Frankel: My last answer: I suspect it would be much more difficult diplomatically, though not militarily. The US wanted multilateral support because rebuilding Iraq and preventing terrorism are political issues as much as military ones. Britain gives us at least a start at multilateralism. And, as many here have pointed out, Blair is able to articulate our position in ways that play well with an international audience. I suspect most of the Bush people find him and Britain's support invaluable.

Glenn Frankel: That's it for now. As usual, the questions were thought-provoking and useful. Thanks for sharing this time with me and The Washington Post.

© 2003 Th e Washington Post Company