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17 March 2003

Blair: the errors that led to a nightmare

The US administration disdains traditional diplomacy, but the PM persuaded George Bush to let him gi

By John Kampfner

Tony Blair is paying the price, perhaps the ultimate price, for a failure of diplomacy. It is Britain’s failure, but not Britain’s alone. The Prime Minister was, according to those close to him, convinced that he could apply his previously unquestioned powers of persuasion not just to bringing voters on board his Iraqi mission, but international leaders as well. The cause of the disarray in Downing Street can be traced back to a deal Blair made with George Bush last September. Blair had been alarmed by the hawks’ bellicose noises over the summer. He went to Camp David to urge the president to give diplomacy a chance, to win over the UN before waging war. That much is known. In return, however, Blair promised Bush he could deliver the Europeans: he would convince them to embrace the primacy of America in the new world order and the validity of its new national security strategy.

Blair secured immediate success, helping the US to draw up and drive Resolution 1441 unanimously through the Security Council. It was in the glow of victory that Blair and Jack Straw miscalculated. They believed, against the advice of experienced officials, that Jacques Chirac would eventually come on board. “We may have underestimated Chirac’s determination to recast Europe in a Gaullist anti-American mould,” says one member of the cabinet.

Downing Street wanted to believe that Bush’s conversion to the UN was more than a temporary gesture to buy time for military preparations or paying lip-service to the old way of doing things. Blair found himself caught in the middle, the eternal triangulator seeking to reconcile two irreconcilable forces: American hyper-power and international diplomacy. This was a case of modern values in a traditional setting. The UN was told that its only means of survival in the harsh climate post-9/11 was to rubber-stamp American decisions. The assumption was that it would roll over.

It hasn’t. The most devastating of the many setbacks for Blair was the warning from Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, that any attack without a second resolution would be in breach of the UN Charter. UK law officers advised Blair that if he proceeds without it, British military action would be illegal. He is desperate for more time at the UN, but his negotiating hand is weak. With the Labour Party circling around him, he was further undermined by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, who made it plain that he was happy to begin a war without him. Blair’s much-vaunted influence was being swatted away.

The hawks in Washington may have their faults, but inconsistency is not one of them. They had no intention of making American interests hostage to un-American forces – a UN that had failed to deliver for the US in the past and, in Hans Blix, a Swedish conciliator who wasn’t their choice for chief weapons inspector. Blair and Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, prevailed upon Bush, against his instincts, to trust these outsiders. Blair pressed Bush hard for a second resolution. He failed to get an outright commitment when he went to Washington at the end of January. But he and his advisers assiduously chipped away, and finally got approval. While Bush is sympathetic to Blair’s domestic problems, he is said to be frustrated at having listened to him.

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The UN has always been an intriguing mix of the grandiloquent and the grubby. As the US, Britain and France sent ministers from one obscure capital to another, the combination of bribery and intimidation wasn’t hidden. Blair tried to pretend otherwise, to profess moral methods for his moral cause. But as Trevor McDonald asked him, in his deeply wounding but compelling television audience on 10 March: “What is the going rate for a vote in the Security Council these days?”

As Blair squirmed, Chirac exulted in his new role as bulwark against America and made clear his intention to use France’s veto. In a television interview, he produced a telling statistic: France had wielded the veto 18 times in the UN’s history, compared to Britain’s 32 and America’s 77 – the latest US veto (though Chirac didn’t mention it) being on 20 December, when it refused to back a resolution condemning the killing by the Israeli army of a British UN aid worker in Jenin and the destruction of a World Food Programme warehouse in Gaza.

Bush was being brutally honest when he suggested from the outset that a second resolution was “desirable but not essential”. He has been making the time to hit the phone lines and help his friend in need across the ocean. But as one senior US official put it to me: “This is Blair’s cause.”

While White House officials express incredulity at what they see as Blair’s naivety towards the UN in general and the French in particular, Downing Street and the Foreign Office have been aghast at the ineptitude of the Americans’ wooing of the waverers. Having cast aside traditional tenets of diplomacy at the start of the Bush presidency, the Americans tried belatedly and half-heartedly to relearn them. But this administration was not equipped for the task. “Going to someone else’s country is a sign you respect his opinion,” wrote Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. “This Bush team has done no such hands-on spadework.” This came home to them when the Turkish parliament rejected the blandishments of $6bn in aid and new weapons, and powers over the future of the Kurds, and refused to allow American forces to invade Iraq from the north. As recently as December, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary and ideologue-in-chief, proclaimed after a visit to Ankara: “Turkish support is assured.” The assessment of Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post was coruscating: “The scale of the failure of US diplomacy to give Bush workable alternatives to the situation in which he finds himself – going to war over the concerted opposition of allies and world public opinion – is staggering.”

From Madeleine Albright to George Schultz to Henry Kissinger, members of previous US administrations – whatever their ideological starting point – worked the international community. In the run-up to the Gulf war of 1991 Bush’s father and his secretary of state, James Baker, ended up with an alliance of 34 nations. Powell, by contrast, rarely ventures out of the country. He has learnt from bitter experience that no sooner is his back turned than Rumsfeld and others conspire against him. During a visit to Israel in April 2002, Powell spent most of the time on the phone trying to stop his Middle East policy being undermined at home. He failed, and the chance of peace all but disappeared. From that point, Blair started doing some of Powell’s work for him.

The sympathetic response from most countries to 11 September did nothing to dissipate the Bush cabal’s disdain for traditional diplomacy. When Nato invoked article five of its founding charter, declaring the attack as an attack on all, it received no thanks. President Putin ceded former Soviet bases in central Asia to the US and got little in return. These resentments have now come to the fore. As Rumsfeld and the hawks see it, they wouldn’t have mattered if America had gone its own way.

The pressure on Putin to refrain from using his veto is not for the squeamish. A senior US diplomat in Moscow said this month, in tones reminiscent of the cold war: “Iraq should not cause the rest of the relationship to be held hostage, but we made clear that is sometimes easier said than done.” The list of incentives is long: accession to the World Trade Organisation, the repeal of a now largely symbolic law tying Russia’s preferential trade status with the US to its citizens’ right to emigrate, the designation of three Chechen groups as terrorist organisations, and money – lots of it.

Neighbouring Bulgaria has presented no such problems. Once dubbed the 16th Soviet republic, it is known in the White House as “the quiet American”. It is the exception. But even with a list of inducements dangled before them, the three African members of the Security Council – Guinea, Cameroon and Angola – have been holding out. Mexico, the US’s second most important trading partner, was given the honour of the first visit abroad by Bush as president. But it has not followed instructions. There would, one US official was quoted as saying, be “a certain sense of discipline”. As for Chile, a trade deal that took a decade to negotiate is now in peril. Not since 1973 – when the Nixon administration backed the coup led by Augusto Pinochet – has America taken such a strong interest in the country.

The wavering ten, as they are known, have asked for more time, a month or more. The White House peremptorily dismissed their request. Blair is left ever deeper in the mire, a victim of French disdain for America, American disdain for the global order, his own refusal to see reality – and the limits of his power to change it.