Why has Tony Blair not distanced himself from George W Bush on Iraq? This is a question that is being asked not only in Britain but also in other parts of the world. Few believe that Saddam Hussein, vicious though he is, poses any great threat beyond his region. But the risks of undermining the legal and ethical framework holding countries back from attacking their rivals and killing large numbers of civilians, and undermining the United Nations as a force for peace, are immense.
There is less surprise about the actions of the US government. From the president down, the administration has extremely close personal ties with the oil and arms industries, both of which could profit hugely from an invasion. Several top politicians have made it clear that they want to assert US dominance, or that they regard an attack on Iraq as a long-awaited step towards vanquishing all who may get in the way of Israeli hardliners' plans for the Middle East. Elections are coming up, and war may distract some voters from the state of the economy, as well as pleasing some on the Christian right. All these factors could distort the judgement of those in charge.
In Britain, on the contrary, a war could cause an economic downturn and damage the government's popularity. Divisions in towns and cities could be inflamed, wreaking havoc with programmes for urban renewal. Much international goodwill within and outside Europe could be lost, especially if Gulf states or other Asian or African countries are destabilised. There is even a chance of war crimes charges, especially if there are high civilian casualties. Why take the risk? Presumably the aim cannot simply be concern for Iraq's people or dislike of weapons of mass destruction, or the allies would not be considering use of such weapons themselves.
Tony Blair is widely believed to be holding George W Bush back from going it alone - but simply persuading other countries to follow the US lead is not, in itself, a great contribution to world peace. And if, despite the pressure that has been exerted, the United Nations refuses to turn the inspection process into a pretext for invasion, what will happen? As the front-seat passenger in a car driven by George W Bush, will Tony Blair slam on the emergency brake?
I hope so, but I fear not. For the choice he must now make involves several issues on which he has shown worryingly poor judgement over the years.
His admiration for US politicians and business leaders, apparently unaffected by recent scandals and the extraordinary views that some espouse, has not only baffled people in Britain but also damaged its standing in Europe and beyond. Having a prime minister who is seen as a PR man for the president is not the best way to win trust and respect overseas. However, Tony Blair's apparent willingness to go to war may not stem just from loyalty to the US government.
He, too, is notorious for mistaking the interests of major oil and arms firms for those of the nation as a whole. Revelations about Labour links with the disgraced Enron have done little for the party's image. But the closest connection with an oil company is with BP, nicknamed Blair Petroleum. When the Labour Party came to power, former BP chairman David Simon was made Minister for European Trade and Competitiveness, and he is still an advisor to the government. Numerous executives have served on government taskforces or been seconded to the Foreign Office or Department of Trade and Industry. Ministers have attended BP seminars, and senior figures at Downing Street such as Anji Hunter now work for BP. Chief executive John Browne --- made a Lord by Tony Blair -- has now staked his company's claim to a share in Iraq's oil wealth, arguing that it is not just US companies which should profit. (At least there is a refreshing honesty in Europe and the USA today that the Iraqi people will have no real control over what happens to their country's resources after Saddam Hussein is overthrown.) The construction industry, too, may profit from rebuilding a devastated Iraq.
Arms manufacturers and dealers will also do well out of a war, especially if this continues on for years or sets off conflicts in other countries. Tony Blair's commitment to this industry has also cast doubt on his judgment. Taxpayers pay huge sums annually on expensive equipment (sometimes faulty). What has been described as Britain's addiction to arms has undermined some of what is best in the nation, and claims for an ethical foreign policy now ring hollow. When he visited South Asia on the brink of a possible nuclear war, he was trying to sell Hawk fighter jets to one of the combatants while advocating peace to both. It is not even the case that the arms trade leads to an overall increase in jobs.
His relationship with Israeli nationalists, if anything, raises even more questions about his ability to make wise choices. The Israeli Foreign Office's deputy director for public affairs, Gideon Meir, has played an important part in fending off international pressure on his government to negotiate and reach a fair deal with -- rather than simply trying to subdue -- the Palestinians. Years ago, he played a key part in distancing Labour from its traditional concern for the rights of Palestinians.
In 1994, though Israel could not be counted as a hostile power, its interests were clearly very different from those of Britain. The actions of its militarists had led it into attacks on its neighbours, suppression of human rights within in its borders and the occupied territories, and development of nuclear weapons; it had breached numerous United Nations resolutions. It might have seemed sensible for an up-and-coming British politician to avoid any suspicion of dependence on a foreign government, let alone one that was so controversial. Yet it was Gideon Meir, at that time the second-in-command at the Israeli Embassy in London, who at a dinner party he gave introduced Tony Blair to the man who was to become the Labour Party's leading fundraiser, Michael Levy. The prime minister's close friendship with and reliance on Lord Levy, as he now is, was a source of some embarrassment when it was revealed that the multi-millionaire had paid minimal taxes for two years. But the international policy implications are even more serious.
Lord Levy has a home in Tel Aviv and close links with the Israeli Labour Party. One of his sons has worked for the Israeli government. He does not share the stance of the most extreme in Israeli society. But he is also a long way from those at the cutting edge of the peace movement. He is an honorary president of the United Jewish Israel appeal, one aim of which is to encourage and assist Jewish people in need throughout the world to migrate to Israel -- a particularly sensitive issue because some migrants become illegal settlers. As the prime minister's special envoy to the Middle East, he has helped to make sure that Britain continues to support Israeli militarism, despite occasionally expressing concern for Palestinian rights. In 2001, arms exports to Israel almost doubled, though controls have been tightened and some export licenses refused because of events in the West Bank and Gaza.
So close are the bonds developed under Tony Blair that, even if the British government claims to be opposed to an action by Israeli forces, this may not be believed abroad. So if, say, an Arab country or Iran is attacked or Palestinians are expelled from the occupied territories, some of the anger this provokes may be targeted at Britain.
Tony Blair's faithfulness to the US and Israeli authorities, oil and arms firms has repeatedly skewed his judgement. Because war on Iraq may seem to offer them rich gains, he may overlook the risk of serious damage to wider British interests, including spending on public services, how civilised and humane a society this is and how it is thought of and what it offers to the rest of world.
He has helped to persuade George W Bush not to attack without at least trying to create a façade of legality and persuade more countries to pay some of the bill. But the pro-war lobby in the USA is extremely powerful, and may well get their way, especially if they can count on British support. Even if Iraq is occupied quickly, controlling it and the rest of the Middle East will involve a long, costly and bitter struggle.
The deaths of British soldiers, civilian suffering and intensified religious conflict may bring an end to Tony Blair's career. Like other ex-prime ministers, he may move on to other things - but Britain will have to live with the legacy.