International Papers

Blair’s Basra Ballet

The prime minister’s dance of distraction.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s surprise Sunday jaunt to Basra and the weekend’s massive airport disruptions in London turned British commentators’ attention to the conflict in Iraq and the wider war on terrorism. Papers noted that Blair’s day trip to Iraq came as Britain awaits the potentially blistering Hutton report on No. 10’s use of intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

The Basra trip “produced a good news story before Lord Hutton reports later this month,” the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial. Some papers portrayed Blair’s stance during the Iraq stop as an awkward ballet—refusing to relinquish the WMD rationale while clearly shifting the discussion to the importance of saving the Iraqi people from a tyrant. The Telegraph said that while Blair made a strong argument for the use of military action to rout what he reportedly called the “particular virus of Islamic terrorism,” he “had to execute a well-choreographed, highly prepared dance to sidestep the WMD question.”

The Scotsman said “it was only right” that Blair visit Iraq to praise the troops, who, a British official confirmed Monday, will remain there for another three to four years. The paper said the debate over the Hutton findings will come and go and British troops will still be on patrol in Iraq. The paper concluded, “Having started on this job, Britain now has an obligation to see it through.”

An editorial in Scotland’s Herald suggested that Blair will be debating the Iraq war for some time to come. “That [Blair] should choose Basra rather than Birmingham or the Borders for his first engagement of 2004 is proof, were it needed, of how Iraq is set to dominate the coming months.” While the prime minister might wish for the public to reserve judgment until the country has made some steps toward prosperity and democracy, “the opinions which matter now are those of Lord Hutton and the public. The prime minister, much as he might like, cannot take flight from those for much longer.”

The Guardian argued thatBlair continues to cling too tightly to the WMD argument. “It [is] simply no good for Mr. Blair to persist in claiming, as he did before Christmas, that ‘massive evidence’ of illegal Iraqi weapons activity has been uncovered.” That claim was flatly rejected even by Paul Bremer. “It seems clear that Mr Blair, in a bid to pre-empt the Hutton-related storm, has decided on a policy of not giving an inch, of doggedly confusing the issues. It is very odd that he fails to see how this damages his case.”

In an Independent op-ed, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter said, “Blair’s discredited comments only underscore the sad fact that the issue of Iraqi WMD, and the entire concept of disarmament, has become a public joke.” The damage from what Ritter called “misrepresentation and distortion of fact” by the U.S. and British governments erodes the very precepts of diplomacy and international law that “kept the world from destroying itself during the last century.” Many Britons, he added, “might take some pride in knowing that their democracy, at least, has had an airing of the pre-war Iraq intelligence which has been denied their American cousins.”

The Guardian attacked Blair’s depiction of the Iraq war as a “test case”—a threat from which the international community could not afford to back down. In an editorial, the paper declared, “The war did not by itself reduce the WMD threat. It did not somehow make the world safer overnight—just look at Heathrow, or Istanbul. It does not mean that forcible regime change is now an acceptable or moral principle. It should certainly not be viewed as a ‘test case’ … for future action.”

The world does not feel much safer after the series of cancelations this past weekend of flights from London to the United States and Saudi Arabia due to U.S. security concerns. The Financial Times said in an op-ed, “Clearly, the airline industry is now facing in acute form the general dilemma of how to fight the war on terrorism without so disrupting normal life as to hand victory to the terrorists.” The paper argued that while security issues should be given due consideration and should prompt needed improvements in anti-terrorism measures, “defeating terrorism requires international co-operation, and this becomes harder to achieve if the US throws its weight around too heavily.”

“Protect us from the protectors” declared a Guardian commentary on the “business” of the war on terrorism. “Pour many more billions into the CIA. Pour extra billions into the FBI. Pour shedloads of cash everywhere, and what have you got? A beast with a life and dynamic of its own. But also, significantly, a beast beyond question or criticism.” The key is striking a balance, the paper said:

People—ordinary people, ordinary voters—see a threat. They couldn’t do otherwise after 9/11, or Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul and the rest. One day, London or St Louis may be the next target. We pay our taxes; we expect protection. Yet we also have ordinary lives to live. We expect a sense of proportionality.