Tue, Apr 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Will 'Bush's Vietnam' prove to be Blair's Waterloo?

By Michael White  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

When US Senator Edward Kennedy warned this week that the crisis in Iraq may be turning into "George Bush's Vietnam" he sent a shudder down the spines of Americans for whom a defeat and 55,000 US deaths remain a national trauma.

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair heads for New York and Washington this week -- amid stern declarations of unflinching solidarity with US President George W. Bush in Iraq -- a similar challenge faces him.

So far Blair has been lucky in the timing of the latest surge of fighting. Now on holiday, the prime minister might have been expected to speak out as the conflict flared inside Iraq. But parliament is in recess until next Monday, giving him breathing space to assess the position and reshape policy.

On Friday that opportunity began to look like a problem. As reports of more hostage-taking and fighting came in from Iraq, Blair was on the first day of his trip to the British territory of Bermuda. His departure -- leaving UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in charge -- came after a week in which ministers have been notably absent from the airwaves.

That same day, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw appeared on BBC Radio 4's The World At One to admit that the coalition faced the "most serious" threat since the end of the war. Some detected a new, more critical tone towards the US military's approach to the insurgency. Ceasefires, not confrontation, are the way to moveforward, he seemed to be saying.

Straw's appearance came amid increased concern in Downing Street that the government's position was being damaged by its apparent silence as critics of the war took to the airwaves. The government is anxious to avoid the impression that it is running scared.

Yet the picture for Blair is more complex. In Britain -- unlike the US where the election campaign is under way -- Iraq has not become a dividing point between the main parties. The latest critical foray on the airwaves last Thursday of former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned over the decision to go to war, is the worst No. 10 has endured so far. There is no equivalent of John Kerry, the Democrats' candidate for president, after Blair's job.

Like the ardently Bushite former Tories leader Iain Duncan Smith, opposition Conservative leader Michael Howard is pro-US and believes the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was justified and will be vindicated. He cannot attack Blair too much without being called opportunistic and has pulled his punches.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's position is more similar to that of Kerry, albeit without his Vietnam vet's chestful of medals. But Kennedy must tread a narrow line between legitimate scrutiny of government mistakes and charges of ignorance or disloyalty. He too sounds muted.

Labour's Donald Anderson, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, just back from Washington, confirms that Blair's stock remains very high in the US capital and that doors open to British members of parliament as a result; less so for what are seen as the crypto-pacifists in coalitions across what is dismissed as "old Europe."

But the price in terms of domestic popularity and trust is high and may be getting higher. It is no longer impossible to imagine that Bush will lose the presidency on Nov. 2 and Blair be forced to stand aside for his heir apparent before Britain's own election.

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