WAR: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

Nothing, according to the British. And sometimes, JONATHON GATEHOUSE reports, the debate isn't even civil.

The signs are everywhere. Britons are opposed to Blair's foreign policy, and aren't buying the PM's argument that there is a 'moral' case for war. 'IT'S LIKE HE'S BEEN TAKEN OVER BY ALIENS,'one said.

OUTSIDE WESTMINSTER, beneath the bulldog squint of Churchill's bronze effigy, the man of peace and the voice for war are coming perilously close to blows. Their sidewalk argument about Saddam Hussein has passed the polite stage, moved into name-calling, and now fingers are jabbing into puffed-out chests. "Sometimes you have to wage a small war to prevent a great calamity," says Samuel Chey. A visitor to London, he's already whipped out his American passport to show the country of birth -- Iraq. "He's an evil man. My family knows it first-hand."

"They're going to kill so many innocent women and children," Brian Haw barks back. On day 635 of his peace vigil on the lawn across from Parliament, the protest pins on his rain hat are flecked with rust. He walks to his display of banners and placards and returns with a collection of photos of deformed Iraqi children. Victims, he says, of the depleted uranium munitions used in the last Gulf conflict. "We trashed their country. We targeted hospitals and schools."

"It's going to be clean this time, the weapons are better," says Chey. "When it's over, the Iraqi people will have democracy."

"That's rich! An American talking about democracy. You know what I say? Yank go home! Bloody murderers!"

Chey throws his hands up in disgust and starts to move on. "Don't worry. When the time comes, we'll save you again."

George W. Bush and his advisers might take note. The "new" Europe appears to have more in common with the old one than they would like to believe. British public opinion is swinging firmly against a war with Iraq. And the debate going on in the U.K.'s Parliament is no more civil than the ones taking place in the country's streets.

Two weeks after the biggest demonstration in British history -- as many as two million people filled Hyde Park and the streets of central London in support of peace -- Tony Blair is in an increasingly perilous position. His own party has begun to balk at the idea of joining the United States in a "coalition of the willing" to disarm Saddam, with or without UN approval. Last Wednesday, in an unprecedented rebellion that may have dire implications for his leadership, 122 Labour MPs -- close to a third of his caucus -- voted against Blair's Iraq policy. With the government now bowing to pressure to stage at least one more parliamentary vote before 40,000 British troops in the Gulf go into action, more humiliation seems certain to follow. British involvement in an Iraq conflict without the UN stamp of approval -- crucial backing the United States has been counting on -- suddenly no longer seems like a fait accompli.

Blair's attempts to convince a skeptical public that there is a "moral case" for war in the short term also appear to be failing. His Bill Clinton-style televised town hall meetings are more like bear-pit sessions than the touchy-feely love-ins of the past. "You don't give a stuff about what we think," a young man told the prime minister during a recent ITV broadcast. "Then why am I putting so much effort into going through the UN?" was Blair's testy response. "Because you need a fig leaf," said the man, as audience members murmured agreement.

The British government's arguments for the use of force have been condemned by both the country's Roman Catholic hierarchy and the head of the Church of England. "I think Christians generally would hold that unless other means of resolution have been exhausted, it would be hard to justify any pre-emptive action," Rowan Williams, the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, said last week. "It doesn't look as if we have exhausted all the possibilities yet." Blair was similarly rebuffed when he travelled to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II.

But more than anything, there is a growing sense that the British have made up their minds about the Iraq question and Blair. There is cynicism about the prime minister's motives for supporting George Bush, and simmering anger that cuts across class, race, political lines and geography. Outside the Chelsea Football Club grounds on Fulham Road, Andy Hamilton and co-worker Lee Robinson down a couple of quick pints before a Premiership match kickoff. "Blair's like a puppet on a string," says Hamilton, a 37-year-old double-glazer. "He sucks up to America. Whatever they want, he goes with the flow." Robinson, 27, also against war, expresses yearning for days gone by. "At least with Thatcher you knew what you were getting. She didn't suck up to anybody."

On the Tube, crammed to capacity by the confluence of repair work and London's new L5-a-day congestion tax on automobiles, Stephen Fitzgerald, a refrigeration technician, says neither Bush nor Blair seem able to make the case against Iraq. "You hear about hidden arms, but they haven't found any, have they?" he notes. Fitzgerald will probably vote Labour again, he says, but only because there's no alternative.

In trendy Camden Town, Melanie Labarrie, a 28-year-old actress who attended the Hyde Park demonstration, says she is outraged that Blair appears unmoved by the millions who are protesting his policies. "It's interesting that the people in power could look out at an entire population rising up and ignore it," she says. "It seems like war is a foregone conclusion. So much for democracy."

Kelly Paulyn, husband Michael, and their two-year-old daughter, Umi, are making their way through crowded fruit stands and flea-market stalls down by the canal. A photojournalist and an architect, both in their mid-30s and strong Labour supporters, they're the type of people Blair has been trying to win over for months now. "He's not an unintelligent man," says Kelly, "but he seems like he's gone off on some moral crusade, like he's in love with America." Michael says he doesn't categorically reject the idea of war, but he doesn't understand the government's haste, especially given its leftist pedigree. "I can't see how it's a higher priority than North Korea, or Israel and Palestine," he says. "Blair is behaving so weirdly. It's like he's been taken over by aliens."

THE LAIR OF A MINISTER, even a junior one at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is something to behold. Tucked in a back corner of the building, down a long marble corridor and behind curved oak doors, is the office of Mike O'Brien, foreign office minister: Middle East. It is a testament to what was once the greatest empire the world had known, featuring a finely woven Persian carpet the size of a Toronto backyard, gilt ceiling, crystal chandeliers, leather chairs and an ornately carved desk.

Shirt sleeves rolled up, comfortably splayed out on a gold-coloured divan, O'Brien patiently engages in what has become his main job in recent weeks -- damage control. "There are a lot of people who support this government's position," he says. "But those who like what a government is doing don't march in the streets." It seems almost unfair to note that Nixon used to say the same thing about Vietnam.

There is no rush to war, says the minister, but a determination to stop Iraq from endlessly defying the will of the international community. "What we do know is that Saddam Hussein will not respond unless threatened by force." The objective over coming weeks is to keep ratcheting up the pressure on Baghdad to encourage it to come clean about chemical, nuclear and biological weapons programs. The British government is not interested in regime change, says O'Brien. "If Saddam disarms his weapons of mass destruction and makes a full declaration, the case for military action will fall." The dictator will be allowed to stay on.

War veteran Gianella says money going for war would be better spent on health care The Blair government understands and shares public anxiety about a possible conflict, he says. The message learned from the backbench revolt -- watered down with a lengthy spin about Labour's leftist, peacenik heritage -- is that cabinet must do better in communicating with both the public and its elected members. "There is no one, not Tony Blair, not anyone in the Labour party, who is gung-ho for war," O'Brien says. "But sometimes doing nothing is a worse option than taking military action."

The other challenge is disentangling the government from the pervasive notion that the White House, not Downing Street, calls the shots these days. "There's a fair degree of anti-Americanism in these arguments," O'Brien notes. "George W. Bush plays well in middle America, but not so well in middle England. People should be looking at the substance of U.S. policy rather than its rhetoric." The minister says Washington and London remain committed to obtaining a second UN resolution before proceeding with an attack, unless an "unreasonable veto" forces them in other directions.

Dame Glenda Jackson, the actress and Labour MP, has been one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of her government's Iraq policy. "I find it completely and utterly unacceptable," she says, "that as a country, we are transforming ourselves from a state that believes in justice and international law to an aggressor nation on the basis of such non-existent evidence." Even as a leader of the rebellion, however, she doubts that Blair can be dissuaded from the course he has embarked upon. But she warns that he ignores the will of the public at his peril. "This isn't a party issue, it's a national issue," says Jackson. "In 11 years as an MP, I have never received so many phone calls and so much post. And I have never met or communicated with anyone outside of the House of Commons who supports this war."

Across the country, rank-and-file members of Labour are also unhappy. John Sargent, an IT consultant who lives in Haworth, Yorkshire, has started the Web site cutitup.co.uk., to urge fellow Labour supporters to tear up party memberships unless Blair changes his Iraq policy. So far, he has received hundreds of hits and dozens of pledges of action. "They're not listening to the public -- maybe they'll start paying attention to people inside the party," says Sargent. "I don't want to cut up my membership, but if they go to war without clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the authorization of the UN, I'll have no option."

Gowling wants more debate and inspections. Blair, she says, has a 'massive A measure of the gulf between the electorate and the elected is easily seen at the newsstands in the morning and on television screens at night. With the exception of the Conrad Black-owned and staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph, few major media outlets are sympathetic to Blair's position. The tabloid Daily Mail is running a front-page campaign against the war. The Guardian, long the Labour party bible, published a scathing cartoon last week picturing Blair as a source of alternative energy -- his furnace mouth filled with skulls, UN resolutions and a heaping pile of "infinitely renewable bullshit."

For the first time since his election in 1997, the bloom is seriously off the rose, the Blair magic in doubt. Writing of the prime minister's pro-war speech in the Commons last week, Independent columnist Simon Carr said he "released so much sincerity into the chamber it was hard to see through it. The voice trembled, faltered and fluttered. He gave us his Tired Fighter, Humble Warrior, his Lonely Leader. He does these so well. Better and better, in fact (practice is so important)."

One of the few bright spots for the government has been the lack of effective opposition in Parliament. Like the Liberals in Canada, Labour holds a massive majority and finds itself facing parties that seem more interested in stabbing each other in the back than dealing a blow to the government. In a period where Conservative Leader Iain Duncan Smith could be making big inroads in the polls, he has ignored the advice of some senior Tories and come out in favour of the war. He is now quelling his own backbench revolt, orchestrated by Michael Portillo, an impressively coiffed failed candidate for the leadership.

But even in the absence of a united opposition, Rodney Barker, professor of government at the London School of Economics, believes Blair's future is in serious doubt. Britain's foreign-policy turn into the embrace of the world's only superpower two years ago has ended up more as military marriage than the economic cohabitation that was envisioned. Backtracking and letting the U.S. go it alone in George Bush's hour of need is not a viable political option, but neither is Blair's current path of defying much of his party and enraging the public.

The large number of Labour MPs who broke ranks in last week's vote, despite arm-twisting and threats of discipline from party whips, looks ominous. "A prime minister is only prime minister so long as he can manage the House of Commons," says Barker. Several of Blair's predecessors have taken smaller revolts as cues to exit.

Although the prime minister has the power to commit to the fast war America is pushing for, without seeking House of Commons approval, it would raise the political stakes even higher. As it stands, says Barker, the PM could only silence his critics with a quick battlefield victory, few casualties, and a smooth transition to democracy in Iraq. "If I were a betting man, I wouldn't be putting money on Blair," he says.

THE MOSQUE at the Muslim Welfare House in London's gritty Finsbury Park neighbourhood will never be described as baroque. Congregants worship in a plain beige room, under exposed metal beams and a grimy skylight. Black mould spots the ceiling and walls. Outside in the watery winter sunshine, elevated trains pass every couple of minutes, rumbling over the prayers of the faithful. At Friday's main service, Mohammed Sawalha's sermon stresses co-operation, tolerance, and resistance. Taking another person's life is haram -- sinful. Anyone who supports war against Iraq is therefore tainted by sin. "We can do a lot of things -- talk to our MPs, send letters, join protests and inshallah," the imam says. "The war will not start."

Almost nine per cent of London's population are Muslim -- some 600,000 people. All told, there are 1.5 million followers of Islam in the country. Sawalha, also the president of the Muslim Association of Britain, says their voices must be heard in the debate over the coming conflict because as a group, they have the most to lose. "A war will damage the relationship between Muslims and this society," says Sawalha, a Palestinian immigrant who has been in the U.K. for four years. "It may help groups who are using violence. Some Muslims will see the death and destruction and say that we have to do something against Western society."

Security is tight at the mosque and worshippers are not enthused to find a reporter in their midst, even if he's been invited. The community is sensitive to the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Just down the street is another mosque, led by the infamous Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Muslim cleric and admirer of Osama bin Laden. Its doors have been locked and police posted outside since a Jan. 20 raid in which British authorities arrested seven suspected terrorists. Sawalha, who favours a dapper suit and tie, rarely gets as much play in the papers as the robed Abu Hamza, with his metal hand hook and cloudy eye -- souvenirs of battles in Afghanistan against the Soviets. "When I speak about how Muslims should co-operate in this society, nobody from the press comes," he says. "But if one person says, 'go out and kill everybody,' they all put it on the front page."

After service, at the Cafe Sahara, six men sip coffee at an outdoor table. Their opposition to the war stems more from politics than religion, and is fuelled by mistrust and anger toward Western powers that they think want the world as their playground. "If an economic power comes to your country, bribes everyone, divides everyone, takes your resources, creates all these problems, how would you feel?" asks Abdillah Ali, a Somali immigrant. "We are not against America, but we are against Bush's oil policy. Everything he is doing is for oil."

As in the cafes in Cairo, Kuwait City and Amman, there is a refusal to accept the idea that Muslims could have been responsible for Sept. 11 -- the CIA, MI5, Mossad are all more likely suspects, they agree. "The whole point is to discredit Muslims," says one of the men, Abdi Mohammed. "After the Cold War, the U.S. needed to create a new enemy to divert everybody's attention. That's why Islam is suddenly a threat."

TUNBRIDGE WELLS is only about an hour by train from Finsbury Park, but seems a world away. The prosperous Kent country village, famed as a spa town since Georgian times, has a cobblestone high street lined with rare-book shops and antique dealers. Land Rovers and BMWs prowl the streets. It's Tory to the core; the town's name is almost synonymous with harrumphing letters to the editor about society-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart in the morning papers. If the support that Blair and cabinet colleagues are counting on is to be found anywhere in Britain, this place would be an odds-on favourite. Yet support for war with Iraq is no more evident here than in the roughest or trendiest parts of London.

Joan Gowling, a retired secretary with an imposing hairdo that bespeaks her fondness for past prime ministers, is uncompromising in her assessment of Blair. "I thought he'd be useless as a politician and he is," she says. Labour's Iraq policy is ill thought-out. "I'd like to see further debate and more inspections. I don't understand the rush. It's as if Blair has this massive ego and needs to be on the world stage." In a nearby park, Johnny Gianella takes his dog, Lucy, for a noon-hour constitutional. His highly polished shoes and regimental tie give away his past. Gianella, who is 82 but looks a decade younger, spent five years as a rifleman in the Second World War. He fought at El Alamein, and other bloody battlefields in North Africa.

His grandson is now a member of the Guards regiment and is in Kuwait. Despite his pedigree, Gianella is not convinced that now is the time for battle. "I think that you go to war for necessary reasons, not moral ones," he says. "And it's not right to spend billions of pounds in the battlefield when our hospitals are in such a poor state." Farther down the road, legal secretary Carole Bullocke eats her lunch on a bench. She can't think of anyone who supports war with Iraq. "I just really don't think we need to get involved," she says. "It's really not our fight." A Conservative voter, she even feels a bit sorry for the predicament that Blair finds himself in. "He's in a situation with the U.S. where he has to go forward and play the good ally. He can't get out of it, really."

Off the high street, an elderly couple wait at a bus stop. He wears a tweed cap and bright windbreaker. She is every bit the country gentlewoman in sweater, sensible skirt and walking shoes. Finally, after more than a week of searching, and dozens of interviews around the country, here are people who believe Blair is on the right track. "Saddam should have been finished off 10 years ago," says the man. "If that's what we have to do to combat evil, then that's what we have to do," adds the wife. The million or more who marched in London are short-sighted, she says: "They can't seem to see beyond the immediate going."

Opinions are fine, but when it comes to giving names, they balk. Their son is in the RAF, attached to NATO. Right now, he's at the Pentagon, planning. "He'd go barmy if he knew I was talking to you," says the man. The silent majority, if it exists, is keeping awfully quiet. America better be ready for a shock to its system. The evidence on the street in Britain suggests Bush's "coalition of the willing" might not hold for long.

source: MacCleans Magazine






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