Tony Blair Has a Chance to Bridge the Gap on Iraq

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 5, 2002

Prime Minister Tony Blair, like every other postwar British leader, has sold his country’s “special relationship” with the United States as a means of enhancing British influence in Washington. By broadly backing the United States on global issues ranging from NATO to missile defense to Iraq, London claims to get a special hearing from the Americans, an opportunity to whisper in the president’s ear in a way that no other European can.

Blair in particular has made this argument to his European counterparts, insisting that through his close relationship with President George W. Bush he can make sure Europe’s voice is heard, and act as a bridge across the Atlantic. This thesis will be put to a severe test when Blair arrives in Texas this weekend for his “war summit meeting” with Bush on Iraq.

While Blair has taken a hawkish line on Iraq and seems to support U.S. threats to use force to remove Saddam Hussein, other European leaders are deeply skeptical. They fear that an attack on Iraq would destabilize a Middle Eastern region already in flames because of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and they insist on proof that Saddam was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks before accepting the need to remove him.

Thus if Blair simply returns to Europe with the message that the Americans are determined to use force and that Europe needs to fall into line, he will meet stiff resistance, and the basic logic of the special relationship will have been severely discredited. Can Blair bridge the gap between Americans determined to overthrow Saddam and Europeans who fail to see the need to do so? That will not be easy, but a trans-Atlantic deal is possible and Blair is perhaps the only one who can persuade both sides to sign on.

In essence, the deal would be this: Americans agree to give strengthened United Nations weapons inspections a chance to succeed if Saddam Hussein agrees to let inspectors back in, and Europeans agree to support the use of military force to change the regime in Iraq if he does not.

At first glance, neither Blair’s American nor European partners will be enthusiastic. Many in the Bush administration see inspections as a failed policy. They fear that even if Saddam Hussein agrees under the threat of force to allow the inspectors back in, Iraq will begin a new cat-and-mouse game of hiding its weapons and insisting that certain sites are off-limits. The inspectors will fail to find much, the international community will oppose the continual “harassment” of Iraq, and eventually calls to lift sanctions on Iraq will be made, leaving Saddam in possession of weapons of mass destruction and in position to develop more. To convince the Americans that this all-too-plausible scenario will not come about, Blair will need to persuade them that Europeans will no longer permit Saddam to play games with the inspectors. A new UN Security Council resolution with European support would remind Iraq of its obligation to immediately account for and destroy its nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs. More notably, it would state that the failure to do so would lead to an international use of force to change the regime.

Europeans will also hesitate of course. They know that the chances are high that Saddam will either refuse inspections in the first place or that he will seek to cheat once they recommence, and that if they have threatened use of force they will have to follow through.

But the Europeans must also realize that failing to insist on serious, unfettered inspections linked to military force will only enhance American skepticism about the inspections route, and lead to the very American invasion they seek to avoid. The bottom line is this: If Saddam really believes that a U.S.-led coalition is poised to unseat him, he will probably give up his weapons of mass destruction rather than lose his hold on power—or his life.

If the major Western allies can make their military threats credible, and stick together, they will therefore probably not have to carry them out. But if they waffle or disagree, we will get one of two bad outcomes: a dangerously armed Saddam or war against Iraq. The Blair-Bush summit meeting this weekend may be the most important yet.