The Breakfast Table

Russia to the Rescue

Dear James,

Tony Blair is a man of deep and passionate convictions–or he would be, if only he could work out what those convictions are. During the last British election campaign, the Blair camp thought (mistakenly) that I had influence over the editor of the newspaper I then worked for, a newspaper they were hoping would drop its traditional support for the Tories and back Labor (it did). They therefore gave me a lot of time with Blair, who does in private sound very Thatcherite indeed. He told me, for example, that “I want to be remembered as the prime minister who reformed the welfare state.” But when I would press him for details, he would shake his head, smile, and say, “Can’t give away any details until after the election.”

Now the election is long over, but the details of the Great Reform are still not forthcoming. Tony Blair remains a rhetorician without a cause–and I suspect Kosovo provides one. Hence the warlike stance. It must, in fact, be a relief for him to have a reason to deploy the Churchillian language he loves, minor changes in health care waiting-list procedures don’t provide quite the same inspiration. Also, the British are proud of their army, the most professional in Europe. Also, the British public always rally round “our boys”: They don’t have a Vietnam syndrome, they have a Falklands syndrome. Also, the British left, and especially the left-wing press (there is such a thing in London), have been very loudly in favor of military action in Bosnia and Kosovo from the beginning, so they can’t really start criticizing now, although I’m sure they’d like to.

A few messages back, you mentioned silver linings. Here’s the one I’m hoping for: involvement of the Russians in the final peace plan. At first threatening to start World War III, they did go awfully quiet a few days into the war, after the IMF announced that it would, after all, bail out the Russian economy, a story buried on Page 99 of most newspapers. The Russian leadership clearly sounds a lot more moderate behind the scenes: Much of Yeltsin and Primakov’s apocalyptic public rhetoric might even be construed as plain old cynical electioneering, evidence that Russian democracy is working better than we think. (Not that the Russians really have any Slavic brotherly love for the Serbs, but the NATO bombing did touch a sore spot among people frustrated by the failure of “Western” market reforms.) I see in today’s papers that ex-PM Viktor Chernomyrdin, the capo di tutti capi of the Russian natural-resources mafia, is heading off to Belgrade again today. Thanks to the Russians’ public pro-Serbianism, he may be one of the few people who is accepted as a go-between by both the Serbs and NATO. We may still have to invade Yugoslavia, as you note, but maybe for once the Russians can be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.

Am I too optimistic? The weather is so nice here, I’d like to be.