Friday, February 23, 2007

Tony Blair and the Coalition of the Dwindling

When British prime minister Tony Blair announced the other day that he was pulling more troops out of Iraq – yet another blow to President Bush’s Coalition of the Dwindling, and another example of Bush’s growing estrangement from his allies – I immediately thought of my journey two years ago to the city of Nottingham.

Nottingham, located in central Britain, is known in legend as the home of Robin Hood. But in terms of contemporary politics, it is a traditional stronghold for the British Labor party, dominated by voters who in American terms would be considered quite left of center. These were the voters who propelled Blair to power 10 years ago. And these were the voters who nearly kicked his party (and him) out of power in the spring of 2005, during the last national election. The reason: His unrepentant decision to endorse and buttress Bush’s elective war.

On the eve of that election, I spent time knocking on doors in Nottingham with Alan Simpson, a Labor member in Parliament. He was alarmed by the reception he received; later, over lunch, he explained it to me this way: “This war could wind up damaging the Labor party for a long time. We’re not supposed to be ‘the war party,’ especially when the premises for war are built on lies. Back in the ‘60s, the Labor party prime minister (Harold Wilson) refused Lyndon Johnson, when the president wanted the British to send troops to Vietnam. That’s how Labor voters view their party. Yet today, a lot of our people are telling me, ‘I can’t vote again for the party that took us into an illegal war.’ It’s a trust problem we have. It’s difficult for people to essentially support a man (Blair) who ‘in good faith’ essentially lied through his teeth.”

Two years later, this incessant political hostility at home is the big reason why Blair phasing out British involvement in Iraq; at one time, there were 46,000 troops, but, after the next round of reductions around Basra, only 5500 will remain. Naturally, he has spun the pullout as a British version of Mission Accomplished, and, naturally, Vice President Cheney has played Pollyana yet again and insisted this week that the British withdrawal is “an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well,” even though neither claim (as we shall see below) squares with factual reality.

Blair is essentially doing what Ronald Reagan did after 250 U.S. soldiers were blown up in their barracks in Beirut: he’s simply declaring victory and getting out. (Although not even Blair’s spin this week sounds much like victory: “What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis.”)

Politically speaking, Blair had no choice but to put lipstick on the pig. His popularity depleted thanks to his alliance with Bush (the latest British polls put Blair’s approval rating at 26 percent), he has become a serious drag on his own party. There are regional elections scheduled this spring, and Labor is trailing in the polls, again because of Blair’s Iraq baggage. And Blair himself is slated to step down later this year; his apparent successor, Gordon Brown, is already on record as a supporter of British troop withdrawal.

As Juan Cole, the Iraq expert who runs the Global Americana Institute at the University of Michigan, notes on his own blog, Blair is pulling troops out of southern Iraq not because the mission is accomplished, but because “if he tries any further, it will completely sink the Labor party, perhaps for decades to come.”

Certainly, we would not expect Dick Cheney to acknowledge that Blair’s withdrawal from southern Iraq is directly attributable to the damage he has suffered back home for being known as “Bush’s poodle.” But for Cheney to contend that Blair’s withdrawal is actually a sign that “things are going pretty well”…that’s downright Orwellian.

A number of experts on southern Iraq have pointed out this week that the region is dominated by Shiite militias who fight each other, who plunder the local oil wealth, and who have little interest in helping the so-called “unity government” in Baghdad; and that British troops have come under so much fire that they have been compelled to ditch their downtown Basra headquarters and find safer turf near the airport.

Cheney’s rose-colored spin has also been contradicted by one of the U.S. military commanders, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who told reporters in a conference call that if these rival Shiite militias grow more violent, the vacuum created by the British pullout may well compel the Americans to send more troops into the breach.

But let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that Blair and Cheney are correct about things going pretty well around Basra, and that everybody else is wrong. If that were the case, then why wouldn’t the British agree to simply shift their remaining forces to the more violent Baghdad, where they could reinforce Bush’s Surge? Blair, in his remarks to Parliament the other day, never even mentioned that option…because it is politically untenable back home.

All of which is further proof that the term “coalition forces,” a staple of cable TV news, is a misnomer. By late summer, after the latest British drawdown and a scheduled pullout by Poland, and a scheduled pullout of Danish ground forces, the tally of non-American troops will total roughly 11,800. That’s only enough people to fill half the seats at a Sixers basketball game in Philadelphia. And, at most, that’s only 10 percent of all the troops in Iraq; by late summer, Bush will be supplying, at a minimum, the other 90 percent.

But he will soldier on, in increasing isolation, because, unlike Blair, he is not so sensitized to domestic political factors. As the year wears on, however, a growing number of Republicans may well wish that he was.