This report just came out in the Guardian, and is worth reproducing nearly in full (omitting a bit at the end about the EU).
Washington was forced to admit for the first time last night that it might have to start the war against Iraq without British forces because of the internal political problems heaping up for Tony Blair.
The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that Mr Blair’s difficulties had caused the White House to contemplate going to war without its closest ally.
After talks with his British counterpart, Geoff Hoon, Mr Rumsfeld said that the British role in an assault was now “unclear” and that Washington was well aware that the Blair government’s freedom of action might be restrained by a rebellious parliament.
“Their situation is distinctive to their country and they have a government that deals with a parliament in their distinctive way,” Mr Rumsfeld said. “And what will ultimately be decided is unclear as to their role; that is to say, their role in the event a decision is made to use force.”
Mr Rumsfeld’s remarks provoked a mixture of panic and fury in Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence last night. After frantic telephone calls between Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Hoon, the Pentagon issued a clarification of Mr Rumsfeld’s remarks, although there was no retraction.
In the written statement, Mr Rumsfeld added: “In my press briefing today, I was simply pointing out that obtaining a second United Nations security council resolution is important to the United Kingdom and that we are working to achieve it.”
The row over his remarks came amid growing tension between Washington and London on the diplomatic front. Sharp differences have emerged over the British strategy in pursuit of a second resolution authorising war.
Britain insisted yesterday that it was close to winning over the six “undecided” security council members and that the vote will go ahead this week.
Mr Rumsfeld said that if Britain failed to participate in the initial assault, it could still have a role in the post-Saddam policing of Iraq.
Going to war without British troops would represent a complication for US military planners, who are struggling to craft an alternative to using Turkey as a launch pad for a northern offensive.
The absence of Britain from the invasion force would also represent a serious political blow for George Bush, who has sought to convince American public opinion that he is not acting unilaterally.
Mr Rumsfeld said discussions were under way between Washington and London on a “daily or every other day basis”, and that the prospect of going to war without Britain was now being actively contemplated.
“That is an issue that the president will be addressing in the days ahead, one would assume,” he said.
Mr Rumsfeld’s comments and Mr Blair’s intensive attempts to garner more support for a second resolution mean that the next 72 hours could be the most dangerous of the prime minister’s time in power.
Failure to secure the resolution might force him to accept that British forces cannot participate in the invasion.
According to British sources, Washington is alarmed at the extent to which the British government is prepared to be flexible in offering compromises to the six “undecided” members.
Cameroon, Guinea, Angola, Mexico, Chile and Pakistan yesterday demanded that the proposed US-British ultimatum, set last week for March 17, be extended to allow Iraq 45 days to disarm.
They also suggested that Saddam Hussein be given a short list of disarmament tasks to complete.
The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insisted that the proposal to push back the March 17 deadline by a month was “a non-starter.” But the UK ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, offered the six an extension to the end of the month and was ready to concede ground over the benchmarks.
British sources hinted that Mr Bush was becoming alarmed at being dragged into an increasingly messy process.
Mr Blair desperately needs the second resolution to prevent revolt by his ministers and MPs.
Panic gripped Downing Street on Monday after the French president, Jacques Chirac, said in a televised interview that he would veto the resolution.
Mr Blair has apparently been told by government lawyers that without a second resolution, it will be illegal for Britain to participate in war.
My instant analysis is that Rumsfeld’s comments have just about killed any chance of British participation in a war. They are a gratuitous kick in the teeth for Blair, and the reported “panic and fury” in Downing Street reflects this. A lot of consequences follow:
(1) If the US dumps Britain, this will probably mean that there will either be no second resolution, or one that the US rather than France will have to veto.
(2) If Britain pulls out and there is no second resolution, the Turkish government won’t try a second Parliamentary vote.
(3) Howard will probably stick with Bush although even this isn’t clear – I suspect he’ll be writing his own political obituary if he supports a war now.
(4) If (1)-(3) happen, even the participation of Qatar cannot be counted on.
(5) The logistic chaos arising from the consequences I’ve spelt out would either delay war for weeks/months or push the US to adopt some sort of high risk strategy. The risk could be military (a hastily rejigged plan for a land invasion) or political (a carpet-bombing campaign with massive Iraqi casualties).
(6) Contemplation of consequences like (1)-(5) might deter Bush from going ahead
All this raises the question of why Rumsfeld would have spoken as he did. But I think a sufficient explanation is that Rumsfeld doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.
Anyway, that’s as good a reaction as I can give at zero notice. Comments and further information would be much appreciated.
UpdateThis is stunning. All the British media are running this as a lead story, but the US media have ignored it completely – the NYT buries Rumsfeld’s comments halfway down a long piece entitled US Would Accept Short Extension of Iraq Deadline and the others don’t mention them at all as far as I can see. It’s no wonder the Administration is doing such a lousy job of rallying world opinion.
Meanwhile, Steven Den Beste (who seems perfectly attuned to the thinking of the Rumsfeld faction in the Administration, though he says, and I believe, that he has no inside contacts) pushes the case for dumping Blair and going it alone. He also notes reports that
The Turkish government is letting us deploy troops secretly for a northern front despite last week’s parliantary action. If true, that’s welcome news.
On the contrary, it’s a potential disaster for both Bush and the Turkish government if it’s exposed, as it surely must be if the troops are to be used.
One minimal side benefit of all this is that should put an end to all those tiresome arguments about whether Bush’s policy is ‘unilateralist’. Rumsfeld has clearly staked out a unilateralist position with no fig-leaves about a ‘coalition of the willing’. It remains to be seen whether Bush will be foolish enough to back him.
Further update Not surprisingly, Calpundit and Maureen Dowd share my assessment of Rumsfeld’s remarks as gratuitously stupid. A bit more surprisingly, so does Andrew Sullivan.