It was heralded as the biggest gamble of his career, a huge
political risk, a make-or-break moment.
So with the Iraq war now over, has the gamble paid off for Prime
Minister Tony Blair?
While Blair has earned admiration and respect in the US for
supporting President Bush's campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, it has
been a very different story at home and in Europe.
Though broad opinion polls have swung back in his favor ever
since the first shots were fired in Iraq, Blair has alienated an
important segment of his own Labour Party, offended Muslims, and
upset key international partners such as France and Russia.
The British leader, who marked his sixth year in office last
week, has a lot of bridgebuilding to do, analysts say.
The extent of his domestic discomfort was apparent from local
elections last week in Britain. Incumbent governments often struggle
in these mid-term polls, but Labour's result was anemic, the party
garnering only 30 percent of votes cast, compared with 34 percent
for the opposition Conservatives. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith
exulted in what he called Labour's worst showing since 1979.
Of particular note was the collapse of support across central
England among large Muslim populations incensed by the war.
"Young people and the Muslim community feel that their voice was
completely ignored by the government when they came out in their
millions to protest the war on Iraq," said the left-wing Campaign
Group in reaction to the elections. "Now they are returning the
compliment and deserting Labour at the polls."
Of equal note was the message from British voters that it's the
quality of life in Birmingham and Bristol - not Baghdad and Basra -
that matters most to them. Blair tried to stress recently that he
was putting "100 percent" effort into improving shabby public
services - but voters were unimpressed. "The backlash was against a
faltering economy and the Labour government's failure to improve
public services," says Anthony King, professor of government at
Essex University. "The prime minister has been much less focused on
domestic business recently."
The other problem stemming from the Iraq war is that most Britons
do not believe it has reduced the likelihood of a terrorist attack.
A poll last week showed that 6 out of 10 people fear that Britain
has made itself a bigger target for fundamentalist strikes.
The war "hasn't helped in keeping the coalition against terror
together and keeping the Muslim countries on board," says Prof. Paul
Wilkinson, an expert in terrorism and international relations at the
University of St. Andrews. "Al Qaeda can use the invasion of Iraq as
a propaganda weapon, so in the longer run it [the war] does create a
danger of more terrorism," he adds. …