Doves don't take on hawks and win

Is Tony Blair flattering himself that he can rein in George Bush's lust for war? John Kampfner repor

Ignore the soft soap. Tony Blair is very worried by the Americans' Iraqi adventure. You can hear the anxiety in the voices of those around him. Our Prime Minister has based his foreign policy on a belief that he can "manage" George W Bush like nobody else. But what if he can't?

Blair has let it be known that, in the dangerous and emotional weeks immediately after 11 September, he prevailed upon the US president to bide his time before going into Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and hunt for al-Qaeda.

Blair is entirely signed up to the new American policy of the "pre-emptive strike", born of the terror attacks on 11 September. But what matters to the Prime Minister, to coin a phrase he uses on the domestic front, is "what works". And he remains to be convinced that Bush has a credible diplomatic or war strategy.

His concerns are many: that the Americans won't be able to drag Saddam out of his bunker (just as they failed to find Osama Bin Laden in his cave); that they will cause thousands of casualties along the way; that they might, as happened in Somalia, not have a proper exit route; that as a final act of defiance Saddam might use any of his weapons of mass destruction; that even if they did get rid of him they have yet to alight on a serious alternative (such as Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan); and that US and allied forces might have to spend the next decade shoring up the place.

Then there are the consequences for Israel and the Palestinians, for Islamic fundamentalism across the Middle East and future terrorist acts . . .

"We hear the Armageddon theories and we don't think they'll come about," says one adviser to the Prime Minister. "But in truth we haven't been there on the ground for four years and much of what we're doing is guesswork."

It is the imponderables that frighten the more sober-minded people around Blair. The Armageddon theory referred to is the prospect of Saddam launching an air raid on Israel in a repeat of the first Gulf war and a gung-ho Ariel Sharon responding with a nuclear option.

Officials around Blair are giving him consistent advice. Many of them have "history" - Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, served in Washington; Sir David Manning, his top foreign policy man, was ambassador to Jerusalem and to Nato, while Sir Stephen Wall, former envoy to the EU, runs his relations with Europe.

These people count for much more than the official word from the Foreign Office (which is seen as doing the information-gathering legwork but not much more) or the discordant noises within the cabinet, such as from Clare Short, who is considered the minister most likely to walk if Britain does back an American strike. As for John Prescott and Gordon Brown, they have taken the view that the less they say, the better.

The British are exercised by the "sequencing" of an American war on Iraq. They are pinning their hopes on the doves around Bush (the likes of Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, and to a lesser extent Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser).

But the doves' view, so far, is not prevailing.

Meanwhile, Jordan's King Abdullah, during his visit to London earlier this month, worried Downing Street officials with claims that Blair expressed worries about the Palestinian problem. Blair's advisers say the king misrepresented this to the media as Blair calling into question Bush's whole strategy on Iraq.

Still Downing Street, while slightly embarrassed by the fracas, is not unhappy for Blair to be portrayed at this point as the "wise counsel". No 10 is mildly flattered to hear that the Prime Minister's view is sometimes invoked by Powell in his increasingly difficult and seemingly losing battle with the chief of hawks, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Blair sees for himself a dual role - to act as an "internal" check on Bush and as an external envoy, garnering support for any allied attack from wherever he can get it. And that won't be easy.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is under considerable pressure from conservatives at home - in his administration, in the security services and in parliament, not to be too helpful. His decision, after 11 September, to allow the US to set up military bases in Georgia and Uzbekistan was seen as naive. Americans are now crawling all over both former Soviet republics.

France might be less of a concern to the Americans and British than it has been for some time. Now that he fully runs the show, President Jacques Chirac is sending out signals that his won't be as negative as previous French governments. By contrast, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder launched his increasingly desperate re-election campaign on 5 August with an unprecedented and bitter attack on American "adventures" abroad. It went down well on the stump and will put pressure on the challenger, the conservative Edmund Stoiber, to voice his doubts about any Iraqi invasion. Downing Street feels confident that this anti-Americanism will die down after the German elections - no matter who wins.

The German government as well as others in Europe and beyond have made it clear they want a vote in the UN Security Council before military action. The Americans are against this; Blair is agnostic.

Blair, I am told, is "completely convinced" that Saddam possesses stockpiles of chemical and biological, and possibly nuclear, weapons. So why has he failed to produce the "dossier" he promised several months ago? "He has a lot of material at his disposal," one official told me. "And when he thinks the moment is right, he will publish it." He will be held to that.

What matters to Blair is, first, that the "UN process" runs its course and that Saddam is given appropriate and formal warning about allowing inspectors "untrammelled access" to inspect his alleged biological, chemical and nuclear capability.

He is not unduly concerned by domestic reaction. He believes he can keep public opinion on board: he might lose the odd minister, he'll certainly get a barracking from a large handful of MPs, clergy and other concerned folk, but that will be that.

Says another aide: "It will help if we can show that we've tried all the avenues." These calculations are based on the assumption that Bush sees things the same way and is open to persuasion - on the political hurdles to go through before an attack, on the timing of an attack and on the military details of such an attack.

But what if the hawks convince Bush (and they're doing a good job of it so far) that "regime change" in Iraq is the bottom line - that any discussion of weapons inspectors is a smokescreen - and that the ends justify the means of any invasion?

What will Blair do if Bush asks him to trust him? It is simply inconceivable, having invested so much in standing behind the Americans, that the PM won't go into battle with him and for him - whatever his doubts.

That is why Blair doesn't want to talk about it. That is why his people are telling us to go off and enjoy our holidays, that an attack won't happen "any time soon" and "probably not this year".

They're talking to themselves and telling themselves not to worry.