Washington and Brussels: Not Either or, Perhaps, but Both and, 4th February 2003

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 90
4th February 2003

Washington and Brussels:
Not Either or, Perhaps, but Both and
by Sean Gabb

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As I write this article, Tony Blair is with Jacques Chirac, the President of France. Among the items on their list of things to discuss are support for America in the likely invasion of Iraq and a new constitution for the European Union. This second, according to the parts of the draft I have seen and the various comments on its detailed content, is a highly federalist document. It will formalise the change of the European Union from a trading bloc to a federation of states explicitly subordinate to the central authorities. Will Mr Blair reject this proposal? I hope he would like to, but I am not sure he can. It is too connected with the other matter to be discussed today. Let me explain.

In modern America, as Jugurtha said of Rome, everything is for sale. There may be no easily identified American national interest in going to war with Iraq. Even so, the big oil companies want control of the oilfields. The Israelis think an American presence in the region would buy them time before what I think is an inevitable collapse. The Saudi Monarchy thinks the same, though with less reason than the Israelis. They have the necessary influence in Washington, and so there is more chance of war with Iraq than not.

Yet, having bought their war, these interests probably have no real control over its timing or direction. Though for sale, the Bush administration does not give refunds. Mr Bush has cried up the case for war with Iraq to the point where he cannot cry it down again. He has been so insistent on a war that his entire credibility as President is now inescapably linked to getting one. If he cannot find the ghost of an excuse for invading, or cannot shelter behind the required pretences of joint action with at least one of the minor powers, he will find himself, like his father, a one term President.

Regardless of the others, this one fact should give enormous leverage to the British Government. Of course, the Americans have the physical means to invade Iraq by themselves: the real question is whether they can afford the political costs at home and abroad. They need even a very junior partner, and the most obvious partner of any respectable size is Britain. Therefore, assuming a short war and a reasonably clean disengagement—and do not suppose I go further than assuming these for the present argument—there might be a British interest in offering the kind of token support that has in fact been given. The price would be obvious—an open handed American welcome for British disengagement from the European project. A tough negotiator would also demand concessions on Ireland and a slapping down of Spain over Gibraltar.

I do not, however, think this has been the shape of the deal between London and Washington. Throughout the long build up to crisis that followed the September 2001 bombings in America, it has been just possible to explain Mr Blair’s actions on the basis of British interests. It has been rather more possible, though, to explain them on the basis of his known and extravagant vanity. I do not think he has driven a hard bargain in Washington. I do not think he has driven any bargain at all. Instead, I suspect that he has been granted the thrill of playing the part of a great world leader in exchange for doing whatever may be needed to ensure European support for the Americans.

If I am right, Mr Chirac will at this moment be demanding British support for the European constitution he and the Germans have been writing. If there is no British support for this, he might be saying with a little Gallic shrug, there will be no French support for an invasion of Iraq. And without that, Mr Blair’s whole standing in Washington might collapse, and with it his standing in this country as Prime Minister. On this reading of events, he is as much a prisoner of events as Mr Bush, though somewhat further down the chaingang.

So much, it may be, for the “special relationship”—and so much too for the idea, floating in various Eurosceptic discussions, that closeness to Washington means distance from Brussels. Thanks to the equal if separate stupidity of the Bush and Blair administrations, we may be about to find ourselves sucked into a slow motion bloodbath in the Middle East, and at the same time into a European superstate. For once, I shall be reading the newspapers with close attention over the next few days.

© 2003 – 2017, seangabb.

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