In recent days, there have been signs that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has begun to buckle under intense criticism from members of his not-so-‘new’ Labor Party, the media of Fleet Street, and polls showing popular majorities against going to war with Iraq.

It is not particularly surprising that such pressure is taking its toll on what has, heretofore, been Blair’s stalwart robustness on the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and the imperative need to eliminate it, by force if necessary. Rather, what is remarkable is that it took this long for the prime minister to appear anything but completely resolute about ending the Iraqi despot’s weapons of mass destruction program the old fashioned way -- through the liberation of his people, the toppling of his government and the ferreting out and liquidation of his covert arsenal.

For one thing, little in Blair’s background would have led one to expect him to display such true grit. He was, after all, a product of the Labor Party’s long-time alliance with the hard-left Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. In its heyday, when Tony Blair and many of his contemporaries (notably, past U.K. Defense Minister and current NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson) were cutting their political teeth, CND was rabidly anti-American and reflexively sympathetic to her enemies. You have come a long way, Tony!

Mr. Blair’s steadfastness on Iraq is even more laudable, however, for the fact that for months he has been making the case for its forcible disarmament, if push comes to shove, in the absence of a decision by President Bush that such a step will be required. In other words, the British leader took on the role of point-man, exposing himself to extraordinary criticism at home and abroad while making the case for war with articulateness, conviction and evidence well beyond what was emanating from Washington.

Of late, though, Mr. Blair has seemed at pains to put some daylight between himself and President Bush. This comes against the backdrop of the steady accretion of U.S. and allied military forces -- including significant British units -- in the theater. It comes as Saddam’s unwillingness to cooperate meaningfully in his disarmament has been demonstrated. And it comes as the attendant inability of inspectors to locate, let alone destroy, hidden Iraqi weapon stocks becomes all the more palpable.

In short, the moment of truth is arriving. It is, as Margaret Thatcher once said to President Bush’s father, "no time to go wobbly."

All other things being equal, it seems likely that President Bush will soon feel compelled -- rightly -- to authorize the American armed forces to effect the liberation and disarmament of Iraq. He may do it as early as his upcoming State of the Union address, the night after the U.N. inspectors’ next report is due. Perhaps his decision will come shortly thereafter.

Either way, it is hard to imagine that Prime Minister Blair, having argued powerfully that the right and principled thing to do is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in the best tradition of Anglo-American partnerships over the past century, will in fact go wobbly. My guess is that, instead, like a great many others, he and his nation will be "with us" when the chips are down.

If so, the only thing that can be said for the current display of trepidation on the part of Her Majesty’s government is that it reintroduces into the current climate a measure of uncertainty that could be helpful in one respect: It behooves those who will disarm Saddam Hussein and remove him from power to have, to the maximum possible extent, the benefit of surprise.

To the extent they do, the likelihood is that far fewer American, allied and Iraqi lives will be lost in the process of liberating Iraq. To the extent that they do not, the Butcher of Baghdad will have a greater chance of exacting a high cost against those who would put an end to his murderous misrule -- including perhaps the widespread destruction of the energy and other infrastructure so critical to Iraq’s post-Saddam future.

On balance, though, there are better ways to confuse Saddam about when and where the blow will fall than by encouraging international speculation that it may not come at all. One would be to act in advance of the next U.N. "deadline" -- the widely anticipated Jan. 27 inspectors’ report. Should that option be unavailable, the United States should launch military operations immediately thereafter, well in advance of the mid- to late-February timeframe for D-Day currently being bandied about in the press.

Happily, if Mr. Blair’s dalliance with wobbling was well-intentioned, he appears to have thought better of it. His foreign minister, Jack Straw, made a point on Jan. 14 of reaffirming that Britain reserved the right to act without further authority from the United Nations should the need arise. Such a signal is a much appreciated reminder of what makes the Anglo-American relationship so special -- and a further signal that these partners will soon lead the world in liberating Iraq.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.