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Brits May Not Be With U.S. on Iraq

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, January 21, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: British Prime Minister Tony Blair stands tall as a staunch ally in the global war on terror, but he's having a tough time drumming up public support for military action against Iraq as leading members of parliament grilled Blair for two-and-a-half hours today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I understand what the difficulties of public opinion are, and it's my job to explain to people why I think it's necessary.

And it's also the case, incidentally, that we're not in conflict yet, and so we haven't reached the context or the circumstances in which I'm saying to the British people we are now going to be in conflict with Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GIBSON: So what can Blair say to win over British public opinion?

Julian Borger is Washington correspondent for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

So this is this weird situation, Julian, where the British public appears to be aligned with the French, at least if you can take the French foreign minister's statements as any measure. What does the British public think about this looming situation?

JULIAN BORGER, THE GUARDIAN: I think there's great reluctance on the part of the British public to get involved in what they see largely as a military adventure, if there isn't a hard U.N. case backing it up.

And there's a lot of emphasis put in the public conversations on the importance of evidence provided to the U.N. and by the U.N. inspectors. In that regard, there are similar patents in British public opinion to U.S. public opinion, with a lot of emphasis on not going it alone and going with U.N. backing.

GIBSON: You know, the case that's made by President Bush, all of his subordinates and is also being made by his co-equal, Tony Blair, is that the case against Iraq is clear because Iraq is not cooperating in its own disarmament. In other words, that the case against him proves itself.

He's not helping, he says he doesn't have anything, but he won't account for what he did have. Why is this not, do you believe, a persuasive argument in Britain?

BORGER: I think, in Britain — and to a certain extent in the U.S. too — the way the story has gone, there's an expectation of finding a smoking gun. The inspectors have been sent in there with this expectation that there's something out there to be found.

And, if you talk to British officials, they say, "Yes, we believe that because Saddam is not actively disarming, he is in breach of U.N. resolutions". But they also believe, to make the case politically persuasive, some sort of concrete, positive evidence has to be found of Iraqi pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

And this is maybe a difference of emphasis between Great Britain and the U.S., although I think that argument is also understood by certain members of the Bush administration, that there has to be some sort of concrete evidence laid out there. I think there are plans to lay out the best intelligence case the British and the U.S. governments have against Saddam.

GIBSON: Tony Blair also — during this period today when he was being questioned closely — he was asked to rule out and he refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in this coming war against Iraq, if it should happen.

That is, if American and British troops find themselves under attack by unconventional weapons — chemical, biological or nuclear — that the U.S. and Britain will not rule out the use of nukes. How is that playing?

BORGER: Well, I think that is standard government policy not to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack of weapons of mass destruction, studied ambiguity, which is an essential element of the nuclear deterrence. I think that's both true in the British government and the and in the U.S. government too.

How it will play in a skeptical British public opinion, I think, is likely to raise anxieties. There's a lot of anxiety about what will happen if British and U.S. forces should attack Iraq, [the possibility that] Saddam would respond with chemical weapons and the possibility of it escalating and also the possibility of some kind of retaliation against London, Washington, or New York. I think there's a high level of anxiety both in Britain and in the U.S.

GIBSON: Before I let you go, what about the possibility, because it seems to be shaping up this way, that the Americans and the Brits and the Italians and a few other friends are going to do this without the approval of France and China and Russia and Germany and a few others?

BORGER: Well, I think that's a political nightmare for Tony Blair. He said today that it would be highly desirable for a second U.N. resolution backing military action.

That's a difference in the Blair approach to the Bush approach. He openly talks about the possibility of another resolution. He'd very much like one because he's really putting his political career on the line here. He doesn't have the support at home unless there is U.N. backing.

GIBSON: Julian Borger, Washington correspondent for the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian.

Julian, thanks very much.

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