BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.02.02

Film: Paul Wilenius reveals that if Tony Blair is to support President Bush in military action against Iraq and the axis of evil, as well as back United States plans for missile defence , he may have to overcome opposition from Labour backbenchers.

PAUL WILENIUS: Military machines must always be ready for war. And for America, that means the next stage of the war against terrorism. Its awesome air force made it the world's only superpower. And now it's preparing to use that strength against any rogue state that threatens it. President Bush is ready to use air bases like this one at Lakenheath in Britain to step up the war on terrorism. And Tony Blair is under pressure to back him, especially after Bush's controversial "Axis of evil" speech, which targeted Iran, North Korea and Iraq. But that speech caused deep concern in Europe, worries over the future of NATO and now inside the Labour Party there's considerable anxiety, and substantial opposition, to this sort of aggressive foreign policy. American Air Force ground crew fire up an F15 fighter bomber at this Suffolk air base. It's a visible sign of the special relationship between the two countries, which grew even closer after the attack on the World Trade Center. But recent messages coming out of Washington are more bellicose. A senior member of the US administration explains why. BETH JONES: Americans still feel very vulnerable to the threat from terrorism. One of the best ways to understand it is to understand that Americans haven't lived with terrorism the way Europeans have, and the way people in other countries have. So what happened to us, and to so many on September 11th is still very, very vivid. WILENIUS: The determination of the Americans to go it alone during the war in Afghanistan had already caused resentment in the European Union and NATO on this side of the Atlantic. But the anxieties over this more unilateralist policy have grown since Bush's 'State of the Union' address. It clearly pointed the finger at Iran, North Korea and Iraq. PRESIDENT BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an "Axis of evil" arming to threaten the peace of the world, by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger. WILENIUS: One politician who has just come back from a week long trip to Washington agrees. BERNARD JENKIN MP: "Axis of evil" is a very apposite description. The Americans have made a very simple connection between what happened on September 11th, the development of rogue states and the development of weapons of mass destruction and missile proliferation. They are all of a piece. WILENIUS: So if these young American pilots at Lakenheath were sent off to attack any of these states, it appears the Tories would be behind Bush. It's not yet clear if Tony Blair will do the same. Already the Germans, French and even some in the government have expressed doubts, and inside the Labour Party disquiet seems to be gaining momentum. On The Record has tested the strength of backbench feeling over American policy. Researchers asked one-hundred-and-one Labour MPs - do you agree with President Bush that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constitute an "Axis of evil?" An overwhelming majority of eighty-six said "no", with only twelve saying "yes", with three "don't knows." MALCOLM SAVIDGE: I think there is a concern that this very simplistic terminology which takes three very different countries, two of which were actually at one time at war with each other, and tries to suggest that they can all be treated together, that they can all be regarded almost as if they were working together, that sort of simplification of an extremely complicated world, I think does cause concern, as does the implication that this could lead to unilateral military action against any of them. ACTUALITY WILENIUS: Like these American air traffic controllers, Bush likes to run military campaigns his way. He gathers together loose coalitions for a specific purpose. Some have dubbed it "posse diplomacy." DONALD ANDERSON: At its most simplistic there is the sort of western film idea that the Sheriff in the wild west town when the baddies in the desert will gather his deputies together, ride in to the desert, sort of finish them all off or hang them high, well that doesn't work in international relations that, one the people like to be consulted on a far wider basis, but also of course, if there is a high noon situation and the Sheriff hasn't bothered to take the deputies into consideration, when the time of trial or testing comes, the Sheriff will look around and there won't be any deputies there. WILENIUS: Indeed that time of trial may come sooner than many think. Despite the precision of America's laser guided bombs dropped in the Gulf War, a decade later Saddam Hussein's still in power, almost taunting the West. President Bush appears to want to finish the job his father started, and the talk in Washington is of invading Iraq within a year, perhaps with two-hundred-thousand troops. JONES: I think it's fair to say that nothing is off the table. Obviously we'd much rather have, the international community would much rather have inspectors go in to, to assure ourselves of what is going on there or is not going on there. But otherwise it's, it would be hard for me to say what necessarily would happen, but it's certainly the case that nothing's off the table. RICHARD PERLE: At the end of the day, the President has a responsibility to defend the American people, it's his first responsibility under our, our constitution, and if he concludes that Saddam Hussein poses an intolerable threat and we cannot afford to wait and hope for the best and he chooses to take action, he cannot be deterred from that by the sentiments of Germans or Frenchmen or even citizens of the United Kingdom. WILENIUS: A final check before one of America's top pilots takes to the sky. But the big question for the Bush Administration is, will the British be along for the ride? Although Tony Blair hasn't said anything publicly over here, one recent visitor to Washington is confident that that over there, the Prime Minister has given the clear impression to the Americans that Britain will be fighting in Gulf War Two. JENKIN: Tony Blair has left Washington in no doubt that when the crunch comes he'll be there. So why he is dissembling and hanging back now, you can only put it down to the advice of the spin doctors who clearly think that that's a more popular thing to do. Why doesn't he just come clean and stop dissembling? WILENIUS: One reason may be that a war against Iraq would worry Labour backbenchers. We asked one-hundred-and-one Labour MPs "Do you think there is sufficient evidence to justify a military attack on Iraq by America and its allies?" A clear majority of eighty-six said there was not, while only eight said there was; there were seven "don't knows." QUIN: I think there's also a very strong feeling which, Members of Parliament have that any action against Iraq would have to be very, very clearly justified by evidence of activities that they're undertaking at the present time. I think that any increase in that military effort would have to depend on evidence being available that...such, that activities were taking place in Iraq, which were directly either fuelling international terrorism, or constituting a threat to the west through the development of new and dangerous weapons, or indeed through some evidence of further action against his own people. SAVIDGE: There is concern that will be felt across the UK, the population of the UK, across the Parliamentary Labour Party that it would be very, very worrying if the United States were to take action unilaterally. It's a concern that's been expressed, indeed publicly expressed by government Ministers and I think it would be an open secret that it's a concern that is shared in private by many senior members of the government. DOUG HENDERSON: I think a lot of us would have severe worries, one that the action wouldn't be successful, that Saddam wouldn't be toppled and it would be left with an invasion force in Iraq, or secondly that we'd alienate too many of the other countries whose support we need to fight terrorism internationally. WILENIUS: Britain allows America to use air bases like this one to mount operations in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. But the government will face heavy pressure to allow the Americans to use other UK facilities as part of the Son of Star Wars missile defence shield. America is determined to build a system capable of knocking out incoming rogue missiles before they hit the US. But it'll need to use the early warning listening stations at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, to make it work. This would put Britain in the firing line and Labour MPs aren't as happy about the system as those in US who are developing it. PERLE: Well we are going ahead with the missile defence. It takes a long time to build one and to develop it to the point where one can be confident of its ability in a variety of different situations. If we don't start now, we run the risk that one or more countries will acquire missiles with which they might choose to attack us before we have a defence in place. And we've got to get started. WILENIUS: Many in the Labour Party are deeply concerned. On the Record asked one hundred and one Labour MPs " Do you support the British government giving permission for the Americans to use British facilities, as part of America's proposed missile defence system?" Seventy-eight said they did not, while only eighteen said they did, with five don't knows. ANDERSON: I think we are very wary about the whole concept of missile defence. It in itself, it can involve a sort of unilateralism that we, the US can hide behind our shield and therefore we are invulnerable Of course the very concept of invulnerability is a nonsense because there could be the suitcase terrorist and so on, and indeed, September 11th could have happened with a national missile defence or not. SAVIDGE: I think the strong message to the Prime Minister would be that the British people do not want us to be involved in this. The vast majority of the Labour Party and the vast majority of Labour Members of Parliament don't want us to be involved with this. As Prime Minister for Britain, and as a Labour Prime Minister, consider British interests and British safety first and the interests of the United States and of this particular administration second. WILENIUS: Tony Blair slipped effortlessly into his role as a world statesman following September 11th. But things may not run quite so smoothly in the future. Already he's starting to face criticism for being little more than America's poodle, while those close to the Bush Administration expect him to ignore his critics and stand firm with the President. PERLE: Well I'm sure there are Members of the Parliamentary Labour Party and others who don't like the policies we're pursuing. We can't please everyone, we happily didn't choose to acquiesce to the left wing of the Labour Party during the Cold War or we'd all be speaking Russian. So we're never going to be very comfortable with the views of the Left Wing of the Labour Party frankly. And I don't see how we could defend ourselves if we allowed their views to guide our policy. WILENIUS: This sort of sharp remark is hardly likely to please many Labour Party figures. Indeed Ministers may have to start listening to the views of those MPs, who are concerned that the government is lining up too closely with the US. ANDERSON: The Prime Minister really has to take to heart, the concerns of back benchers. We know that there is still, a special relationship, but that should not be taken for granted and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary I think should be advised to listen very carefully indeed to the concerns of our own backbenchers, Labour backbenchers which I understand to be really more widespread in the country as a whole. HENDERSON: I think there are times when political leaders have to lead, they have insight that the public doesn't have, sometimes because of security information. But I think they've got to be extremely careful to carry public opinion with them in these tense international situations and that means that they've got to do the right thing, that they've got to stand up, for what's right and also what's courageous. They've got to be their own man, not just a puppet for some other leader in another part of the world. WILENIUS: So where will Tony Blair be when things really do heat up? If he listens too closely to his backbenchers, things could go cold with the Americans. But if he gives Bush his full backing, he may find his support in the party could start to evaporate.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.