The 70-Hour War: Britain's Diplomatic Offensive - Foreign Office to sell containment

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITAIN BEGAN a diplomatic offensive yesterday aimed at securing international support for its doctrine of "containment" of President Saddam Hussein and winning over several European allies who are deeply unhappy with the Anglo-American bombing of Iraq.

The crisis in the Gulf has demonstrated once more that Britain has a special relationship with the US. The phrase does not require inverted commas. It is a fact of life, cemented by history, shared language and intensive military and intelligence co-operation, oozing up through the bureaucracy to affect whichever British government is in power.

This time again, an almost instinctive mechanism has functioned. But not to everyone's liking. For all the Prime Minister's claims of backing for the raids among European and moderate Arab opinion, British officials acknowledge that many fences must be mended and many reassurances given.

And the signs already are that "containment" could run into big problems over the future of United Nations sanctions against Baghdad.

Tony Blair's assertion that sanctions must be tightened seemed to be contradicted yesterday by President Jacques Chirac of France, who insisted that the top priority must be to improve conditions of life for ordinary Iraqis. Urging a "profound review" of the relationship between Iraq and the UN, Mr Chirac said the time had come to re-examine the oil embargo, which was imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.

Britain insists the embargo, eased by more recent oil-for-food deals, should stay - at least until the unlikely event that UN weapons inspectors are allowed back into Iraq and certify that its chemical, nuclear and biological weapons programmes are no more.

But France wants at least an easing of the sanctions, while providing safeguards against Iraqi rearmament. It would be "a politically delicate" question, Mr Chirac acknowledged, with some understatement.

Britain's efforts to explain itself get under way in earnest this morning when the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, holds a two-hour meeting in London with his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, whose country takes over the rotating EU Presidency in 10 days' time, and who has publicly lamented the bombings of Iraq.

Afterwards, the Foreign Secretary has set aside most of the afternoon for phone calls to his opposite numbers in Russia and EU countries including Italy and France, in which he will "be seeking to win them round to our ideas of containment", officials said last night.

The task may be difficult. If France could be charitably described as ambivalent about the bombing, Italy was explicitly opposed, while Moscow withdrew its ambassador to London in protest - though the Government strenuously insists that there has been no long-term setback to co-operation with Russia. And the attacks could have serious implications for future European defence strategy.

At one level, whatever Mr Blair says, they will cast doubt on Britain's commitment to the new "European defence identity" he wishes to impart to the EU, whereby the Union on occasion could take military action without the direct involvement of the US.

At another, the strikes - effectively taken without consultation with either Britain's EU or Nato partners - may increase resistance to an "out-of-area" function for the alliance, turning into something akin to a global policeman.

This is already likely to be the principal item of controversary at next April's 50th anniversary Nato summit in Washington,charting the alliance's post-Cold War role.