High Noon?

Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit called this week’s main OpEd column “The Showdown” [link in German].

Well, in my opinion, it’s not yet “High Noon”. Hans Blix will get some more time to look for the guys holding smoking guns. He will get at least as long as there will not be a second resolution, or as long as Tony Blair needs to make up his mind whether to go to war without a neither a second resolution nor a proper majority of his own in Parliament. Last Wednesday night, 121 out of 413 Labour MPs told Blair in the House to go back to Downing Street and read some more student papers in order to make a better case for war. And more seem poised to defy their government on this issue.

Given that a government office is the only real political (and financial, too, by the way) payoff for politicians the British political system has to offer, and that these positions are to a large extent Prime ministerial appointments, 121 votes against a government-proposed motion become even more impressive. Labour’s majority in the Commons is 83 seats. You do the math.

On Wednesday, the motion was approved by the British lower house only because it was supported by Members of the opposition.

At least legally, things don’t look too bleak for the British Prime Minister. This is what the Guardian’s news dispatch said –

Labour’s Graham Allen asked: “Under what legal or statutory authority will you commit British forces to war in the Gulf?” Very precise questioning there, and Mr Blair, who is a lawyer, knew exactly what he meant. Under British constitutional law and tradition, what is called the royal prerogative is still used to declare war in this country. It’s one of those untidy hangovers from medieval and early modern Britain. What the king used to do, the prime minister now does, and he doesn’t have to get the permission of parliament or anybody else. Mr Blair was evasive – the words “royal” and “prerogative” did not cross his lips. Instead, he said: “We act on precedent, and whatever we do will be consistent with the constitution and with international law.”

But let’s face it – politically, it would clearly be bizarre and possibly suicidal for Her Majesty’s New Labour Premier, who in his earliers days set out to fundamentally modernise the British political system, to rely on a questionable legal construct called “royal prerogative” to order British troops to fight a war not even a his own Parliamentary party is willing to back. Period.

But as Blair has committed himself so uncompromisingly to the “war now!” camp, he does not have too much space to manoeuver, just as Schröder on the other bank.

However, now the British influence in Washington really shows – I seriously doubt Washington would invade without British backing. The political difference between a war that is fought without proper legal justification by the UN and a war that is literally fought unilaterally is so big even those American hawks whose horizon is the Beltway must be able to see it.

So, in my opinion, it’s not too much of a surprise to hear a bit more conciliatory words from Washington these days. [Link in German]