January 18, 2005

Blair and Iraq

There is no shame in an incomplete understanding of how the UK chooses its leaders. Our system is complex enough—I had certainly forgotten my Social Studies lessons on the Electoral College until I was reminded in 2000 that the President is not necessarily the candidate who receives the most votes.  So it’s not surprising that people can be confused about how other democracies work. One fallacy making the rounds is that if Tony Blair remains the UK Prime Minister for a third term, it will mean a vindication of the PM’s support for Bush and the Iraq war.

In the US, Bush was re-elected because the war had been coupled with fear of terror.  Now Bush is claiming that his win, one of the narrowest ever by an incumbent, vindicates his Iraq policy.  Of course, he fails to mention that Fox-viewers, Cheney audiences, and others were misled into believing Saddam had attacked our country — but put that aside for a moment.  Conservatives are already on to the next claim: “Bush was elected because of American support for the war, and a Blair re-election would likewise demonstrate British support.”

That dog don’t hunt. In the United Kingdom, the only way you can vote for Tony Blair is if you live in Sedgefield, his constituency. Otherwise, you have to cast your ballot for a Member of Parliament to represent your own constituency. Once the results are in, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party which holds the most seats in the House of Commons. 

But why then, if you are so opposed to Blair’s Iraq policy, don’t you vote against the candidate from Blair’s Labour party?

Not so fast: most of the war critics in the House of Commons were Labour.  The conservative Tories were supporters of the war.  So, if you vote for a Tory, you are probably voting for a war supporter. That’s not much of a protest vote.

Then to whom is a British voter to turn? The third-party Liberal Democrats opposed the war.  And sure enough, as a result they won seats in the recent by-election.  But they remain a third party without the well-developed party machinery of their competition.

Technical details aside, maybe the British people just support the war?

Let's look at some recent history. Blair didn’t waffle between justifications for the war, even in the face of massive public protest; he chose one, simple, powerful argument: British lives were threatened. With 45 minutes notice, Saddam could attack British citizens with biological weapons, and he had the intention to do so.

Blair put forth this argument in a public “dossier,” which, reminiscent of Colin Powell’s regrettable UN speech, was billed as containing the damning evidence which would end the debate over whether to go to war. Unfortunately for the PM, his facts were not only discredited, but the document was revealed to be largely plagiarized from a university student.  The author, an instant minor celebrity, noted that the copied paper was out of date, and said he would have been happy to share his most recent information if the government had only asked.  Blair’s discredited document is now known throughout Britain as the “Dodgy Dossier.”

Without a dozen back-up rationales to flop to, Blair lost the confidence of many of his supporters. Many feel he was duped by Bush. A majority of the public considers the PM a liar. As a result, in the upcoming election, the Iraq issue is Blair’s biggest liability.  A third Blair term is certainly possible, but if it occurs, it will be despite Blair’s support for Iraq, not because of it.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink  | 

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