Blair's War

Beneath the arguments over Iraq, the Brits are debating a more fundamental question.


Tony Blair can take a deep breath. The revolt within his party has hit a series of snags, represented most recently by the spectacle of Labour pol Robin Cook backtracking furiously from his earlier declaration, "I want our troops home and I want them home before more of them are killed." According to the London Times' latest poll, the Iraq war is supported not just by a majority of the British public, but by a majority of Labour voters: 78 percent favor their prime minister's conduct of the war. At this point, in fact, more Labourites than Tories approve of George W. Bush. All polls are suspicious, and public opinion is a fickle thing. But this is breathing room, if nothing else.

If anyone needs breathing room, it's Blair. American hawks have a rhetorical advantage, now that the organized bloodshed has formally begun: Defeating Iraq has become a matter of national pride. For Britons, though, there is not just the fear of being humiliated by Iraq, but the fear of being humiliated by the United States; English hawks and doves alike can claim to speak for their country's manhood. (It's no surprise that when some comics faked a funny film of Bush and Blair singing "Endless Love" to each other, they gave Blair the female part.) The loudest antiwar rhetoric in the United Kingdom argues that this is America's war, and that the U.K. is merely being used. American corporate interests are already carving up postwar Iraq, they argue, while Britain is in line to get nada. It's a tricky path that Blair has chosen, and it will be possible to stumble badly even after the war is won.

The deeper issue here is older than the war; older, indeed, than Saddam's regime. Since the British empire dissolved, the central question of Britain's national identity—all the more central because hardly anyone will state it openly—is whether the former great power will now be an extension of Europe or of America. If this is obvious today, now that the U.S. and the E.U. are so often at loggerheads, it was equally true a few years ago, while one wing of the British establishment was fighting to merge Britain into the European Union and the other wing, so quick to speak the rhetoric of national sovereignty while wearing their Euroskeptic hats, was nonetheless home to unlikely schemes for an Anglo-American union—like 1775 all over again, but this time with the colonies on top.

You can sort most major British politicians into one category or the other. Margaret Thatcher, for example, lost her premiership in part because of her hostility to a European superstate. Yet she bowed repeatedly to U.S. foreign policy, and not merely because she shared Reagan's anti-Communism. (Indeed, the one time she had a substantial say in whether someplace would go communist, she let one of the freest patches of the globe—Hong Kong—be absorbed by one of the planet's worst tyrannies.) Blair, though, is harder to place; pro-Euro and pro-war, he favors both European union and a strong alliance with the United States. Like many political paradoxes, this tangle can actually be a diplomatic strength. It can also be precarious.

Another option, of course, would be to declare his independence from both Washington and Brussels. A pleasing notion for British patriots, perhaps, but not exactly a likely one. G.K. Chesterton is 67 years in the ground, and even Ray Davies keeps an apartment in New York. England may be little, but Little England doesn't look healthy at all.

And that brings us back to the original question: Which is wider, the Atlantic or the Channel? For now, metaphorically speaking, it's the ocean that's narrow. We'll see if that's still true after the war.