| The Future of Prime Minister Blair: Leader of Commons Resigns|
With Ian Williams
United Nations Analyst,
Foreign Policy in Focus
Monday, March 17, 2003; 2 p.m. ET
Robin Cook, the leader of Britain's House of Commons resigned today in protest over Prime Minister Blair and the United State's position on the war with Iraq without U.N. support. The U.S., Britain and Spain ended diplomatic efforts today for U.N. approval in their war efforts. U.N. weapons inspectors have been advised to leave Baghdad as early as today.
Ian Williams, United Nations expert analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus and U.S. correspondent for Labor Tribune, a British labor party newspaper, was online Monday, March 17 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss how Robin Cook's resignation will impact Prime Minister Blair's future.
Williams is also the author of "The UN for Beginners."
Below is the transcript.
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.
washingtonpost.com: Mr. Williams, Was Cook's resignation a surprise or was it expected? Will it give Tony Blair significant pause in the decisions he's made regarding foreign policy?
Ian Williams: No
it was already forecast last week after a cabinet meeting. As former foreign Secretary he was a strong UN supporter, and he has been very unhappy about what has been happening.
It will add to Blair's worries, but is unlikely to sway him. Like George W Bush he has convinced himself he is right, regardless of international, and indeed domestic, opinion.
washingtonpost.com: What happens in Great Britain now? Can Tony Blair simply order the U.K. troops to war? Does he have to get approval from parliament or the Queen?
Ian Williams: The British Prime Minister has a lot of power. He had promised a debate this week in parliament but may not wait. One sign of what was happening in the Azores was he asked the Queen to cancel a trip to Belgium, not as a protest about the Belgian's foreign policy, but because she is commander in chief and has to be around!
washingtonpost.com: One of Blair's cabinet minister has resigned. Will there be an effort to replace him as Labor Party leader?
Ian Williams: The most likely contender would be Gordon Brown, the Finance Minister, but he has declared support for the war. On the other hand he has been campaigning for some time, so if Blair's plans fall apart: if the war goes wrong, or there is serious blowback from the area, Brown will certainly step into place.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Presume the following scenario, which according to media reports is the most likely:
Quick easy invasion of Iraq, with few civilian and British casualties. U.S./British troops find Iraqi biological and/or chemical and/or nuclear weapons. Does all of this blow over for Blair, and is the left-wing of the Labor Party discredited? Or do Blair's problems go deeper than this?
Ian Williams: He will emerge scarred in any case. The Labour Party constitution has support for the UN written, and after WWII most of the British population does as well.
Most of the anti-war protestors have been fairly balanced and have no doubts about Saddam Hussein being evil and probably hiding weapons. It is about "due process," and the need for international law.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: Have you been surprised by Blair's extremely close alignment with Bush over the past months?
I realize that there has been an element of behind-the-scenes strategy to serve as a bridge between the US and Europe. But I've been stunned by the depth of Blair's devotion to an administration that has shown so much open disdain for its allies and for the UN.
Ian Williams: Not so much, since they do share an evangelical fervour. Blair in fact does think that he is using Bush for his own moral ends and that is not as laughable as it sounds. He dragged Clinton kicking and screaming into Kosovo and was publicly pairing Milosevic and Saddam even before Bush invented the Axis of Evil.
But in the last few months he has clearly been riding a tiger, diplomatically.
Washington, D.C.: When is the next election for prime minister and will Tony Blair run again?
Ian Williams: The Prime Minister is chosen by MP's - and can be unchosen! Otherwise he has three more years before the next General Election. If he really lost the support of the Labour Party, and his gamble on Iraq failed, then he could resign or he could lost a vote of confidence.
A critical element will be the degree of Labour revolt in the vote this week. If he needs Conservative MP's votes to win he is in very serious trouble.
He was the most popular PM for decades until all this started: his loyalty to Bush or his hatred of Saddam have cost him dearly.
Somewhere, USA: Forgive the simple questions, but sometimes British politics confuses me. From what I read, Tony Blair's job is still pretty secure, at least for now. Even though most of the public and especially his party opposes his policies on Iraq. So:
1. When Margaret Thatcher became too unpopular and lost her base of support among Conservatives, Margaret Thatcher lost her job. How is Blair's situation different?
2. There basically seems to be no viable opposition party in British politics. And the main opposition party wouldn't be much of an option for people who oppose British involvement in Iraq. Is something broken? (True, the Republicans are running things now in the US and the Democrats are a mess, but Clinton won twice and Gore won the popular vote.)
3. In the US, even those of us who pay attention get the impression that Blair is pretty much alone, and that the public really does consider Bush a greater threat than Saddam. Huge demonstrations, cabinet resignations, etc. Would is be fair to say that the debate in Britain is actually more nuanced and balanced than it is portrayed? If I went to a pub in rural Yorkshire, would I find people arguing on both sides?
Ian Williams: I've answered some of these points in the thread but would like to stress that the arguments are quite nuanced. Saddam Hussein is seen as evil, as defiant and there would be support for military action if there were a strong UN resolution for it.
By going along with the US Brits, across the political spectrum, see Blair as risking the whole global structure that has at least prevented an action replay of World War II.
They don't mind Saddam Hussein being dealt with, but it must be legal, otherwise the precedent (and indeed the President!) reminds people too much of the lawlessness of the 30's.
Somewhere, USA: Will Blair really be asked to resign?
Ian Williams: There are people already asking him to! Whether he listens or not is another matter.
Lexington, N.C.: Could you explain why there is such a disconnect between the public opinion in the US on this war and the public opinion of the rest of the world (including the UK)? Is it the media? Are Brits more informed?
Ian Williams: Actually, consistent polls in the US show a majority would be happier with a UN resolution and wide spread of allies. But the American press does tend to be more deferential and less likely to express opposition views. In fact even the opposition in Congress tends to be more deferential and less likely to oppose!
One key element may be that polls show Americans thinks there is a connection between Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and September 11. No one else in the world thinks there is any evidence for that whatsoever. Hence their different responses. They do not see Iraq as an actual threat!
Mitchellville, Md.: Blair and Bush both blame the French for their failure to achieve a majority vote in the Security Council. Logically, however, France's promise of a veto should have made it easier for fence-sitting nations to vote with Bush and Blair, confident that the French veto would protect their interest in averting war while protecting releations with the Anglos. Am I missing something? Won't the English see through this blame game?
Ian Williams: The meeting in the Azores was a response to the failure of the Brits and Americans to win anywhere near a majority in the Security Council for war - now. The French veto certainly heartened some of the swing countries to stand by their previously expressed desire to give inspections time, but the French won the arguments.
It's a bit funny for a President who announced he was going to go ahead regardless of the vote to call the French intransigent! Actually if this had been left to Colin Powell and the British, there would have been a resolution by now. But Rumsfeldian diplomacy - only last week dismissing the British military contribution- is counterproductive. Bullying France, Germany and Russia does not work.
Blue River, Wis.: Are the Iraqi people fed up with Hussein and his terror tactics in their country, or has submission over the years stamped out an thoughts of alternative methods of leadership in Iraq?
Ian Williams: Even many people who oppose the war, here and in the UK, assume that Saddam Hussein is evil and hated by his people. If Sweden and South Africa had suggested humanitarian intervention to get rid of him, they may well have got support. But the previous Bush and Reagan administrations and indeed previous British ones, were covering for him when he carried out some of his worst atrocities, like using poison gas.
New York, NY: Is there as much anger with Jacques Chirac in Blair's cabinet as there is in Bush's? Media reports have said that Bush is privately "furious" with Chirac.
Ian Williams: Honestly, We British have forgotten Waterloo and Agincourt. We have even forgotten Lafayette and the French army and navy's role in winning the war of independence.
Chirac made more sense to more people worldwide than Bush and Blair. I personally think he went up a flagpole of principle and then found himself trapped there by all those who had followed. Sensitive diplomacy would have helped. He was as stupid threaten such an unqualifed veto last week as Bush was to say he was going ahead despite the UN. But the current Chirac offer of 30 days and deadlines is eminently sensible: the military build up is not finished yet, and getting the UN and hence Turkey onside would reduce American and British casualties. Or have we forgotten them?
Arlington, Va.: On Meet the Press yesterday, VP Dick Cheney said he's certain that Hussein has "reconstituted nuclear weapons." Blair's "Six Benchmarks" made no mention of even the word "nuclear." What does Dick know that he's not telling Tony?
Ian Williams: There is a huge credibility gap between what the US administration says and what the rest of the world belevies. UN inspectors say no evidence of nuke plans - which are hard to hide. They do say that they were given forged documents that attempted to prove Iraqi They do say many questions are left to answer on C&B weapons.
The rest of the world does not buy the idea that Saddam is threat to world peace, in fact disturbing majorities thinks Bush is more of a threat, nor that he has anything to do with 9-11 or Al Qaeda.
They do think he is hiding weapons and that he should be stopped, and they do think he is an evil dictator. But for world security, we should follow the rules in dealing with him.
New Orleans, La.: Is it true that there could be a case made that a US attack on Iraq would be illegal by the standards of international law? If so, what is the case, and just how serious is that accusation (supposing things went wrong somehow for the US)
Ian Williams: Kofi Annan, the President of the UN General Assembly Jan Kavan and almost everyone outside the British and American governments do not think existing UN resolution provide legal cover for war, and that it would be agaisnt the UN Charter - binding on all members, including its most significant drafter and signatory, the USA.
Technically, it would make the politicians who pursue such a war, war criminals, but I don't expect to see either Bush or Blair in dock in the Hague soon. Although Britain is a signatory to the International Criminal Court - and that has been brought up.
New York NY: Will Claire Short also leave?
Ian Williams: She said she would. We will hear soon.
She may be swayed by the promise to involve the UN in reconstruction and post war regime.
London, UK: If Turkey is involved in a northern front, will this not cause deep resentment in Kurdistan with fears of an Ottoman revival?
Would this not de-stabilise post-war Iraq!
Ian Williams: yes, and yes.
Atlanta, Ga.: I (and many others I know) am very curious as to why Americans are so despised in the middle east. Was there any single event that has caught hold of people there and made them despise Americans with such furvor? I am aware of some previous meddeling of American interests in their conflicts (Iran-Iraq conflict, supporting Israel, etc.) But, these things do not seem to warrant the Anti-Americanism seen on TV. Also, the U.S. isn't the only foreign interest pusher in the middle east either. Why is the U.S. singled out?
Ian Williams: It comes back to Israel.
At this stage in the first Gulf War, Bush senior convinced the Arabs he would rein in the Likud government in Israel and set Oslo in train. This time Bush junior has given a free hand to Sharon, has vetoed resolution against him, and has only grudgingly signed on the Middle East road map.
To Arabs, most of whom don't like Saddam either, this smacks of double standards, And indeed it does in Europe as well, feeding into opposition to the war.
San Francisco, Calif.: Blair has had no strong oppositon leader to challenge him since he came to power. Both Hague and Duncan Smith have been ineffective. Do you think there is a possibility that the present Conservative leader - Duncan Smith - is likely to be toppled in the near future? Is there any chance that a conservative such as Ken Clarke- who has voiced his oppositon to the war- may win the conservative party leadership. How would this change the political dynamic?
Ian Williams: It's abit like what the lady said when Calvin Coolidge died- how could they tell. Duncan Smith's ineffectuality has been Blair's biggest asset in these trying times.
If the more Centrist Conservatives returned to power it may pose a direct threat on New Labour's own ideological turf.
Ashland, Wis.: How is all of this going effect travel in England?
Ian Williams: Go
Cheap fares! Long way from the war. and the pound is dropping - but so is the dollar.
In fact the invisible hand of the market may be telling us something here!
New Brunswick, NJ: It is said that two reasons for Blair's close relationship with President Bush is to prevent Bush from going down the unilateralist route and that after an Iraq war new efforts will be taken to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Blair and Bush seem to have very different views on this matter. Who will prevail?
Ian Williams: Bush
Rochester Minn.: "But for world security, we should follow the rules in dealing with him."
....and the rules according to you are?
Ian Williams: Excpet in Self Defense war is illegal unless sanctioned by the Security Council of the United Nations.
Sorry, it's not just me. It's the law.
Scotland: Ian..you have not mentioned the Oil!
Many people suspect American motives in all this.i think it is a political ram raid to secure petrol supplies for the forseeable future.It's a smash-and -grab folks!
Ian Williams: I wish it were the oil. That would make sense.
There is something profoundly and disturbing irrational about this obsession. It would take fity years of stealing oil to pay for the direct costs of the war. Not to mention its collateral damage. have you check the value of your IRA or 401 K lately. I"ve already lost some tens of thousands to this war!!
Williamsburg, Va.: Winston Churchill had to manage a number of rebellions in the commons during the second world war. He also initiated a number of important cabinet shake-ups. His was a coalition government. Other than that difference, what distinguishes Blair's political situation today from Churchill's during WWII.
Professor of Economics
College of William and Mary
Ian Williams: Britain was facing an existential threat. Most Brits do not feel that Saddam is any kind of threat. And most Brits attribute the absense of WWIII to the UN. Even the Labour Party constitution invokes it.
It is Bush who has overtones of 30's bullies for many Brits with his constant threat to sideline the UN.
Washington, D.C.: Approximately 70 per cent of the British said they'd support a war with Iraq with U.N. support. Do you think the British are more concerned with the possible repurcussions of the war and less with the morality question? It seems the vast majority do not believe it is immoral to remove Saddam--only illegal.
Ian Williams: I think that is a fair summary. And in addition the US case has been confusing.
9-11? Our oil? Weapons of Mass destruction? Repressive regime? Defiance of the UN? Threat to Israel? Tried to kill my dad? We've heard all of these. If I wanted to win support for a war, I'd have got my message straight and consistent.
Seattle, Wash.: In all seriousness, why don't people see Resolution 1441 as the key resolution (or any of the dozen or so that preceeded it the last 12 years)? Why doesn't 1441 count?
And why is it that Saddam isn't held accountable to that?
Fact is, without Bush's and Blair's push (and I'm not a Bush fan), there wouldn't have been ANY progress...
Ian Williams: UN shorthand for war is
any means necessary" 1441 threatened "serious consequences
It did not spell them out or authorize anyone to mete them out.
If a judge puts someone on probation that is not a carte blanche for a jury member to go and wack them!
North Potomac, Md.: Is there any country where majority of the population (not leaders) is for the attack on Iraq other than Israel? If yes please name.
Ian Williams: I have not heard of one. UK, Spain Italy right across Europe shows 70 to 80% against war. Turkey 94%. Did someone mention democracy as a reason for this war?
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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