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For Tony Blair,a new year delayed

The contrast between the mood in the White House and that of 10 Downing Street could scarcely be more pronounced.
Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is flailing around in a sea of Iraq-related troubles.Johnny Green / AP

With a New Year underway for the two men who led the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, one might be tempted to believe that both the American president and the British Prime Minister could look back with relief at 2003 and say, “good riddance.”

Yet as the first week of 2004 draws to an end, the contrast between the mood in the White House and that of 10 Downing Street could scarcely be more pronounced.

In Washington, the capture of Saddam last month had the effect of an eraser on the chalk board of American political consciousness. With Saddam imprisoned, many Americans appear to feel that the disinformation or half-truths used to build the case for war, deliberate or not, now appear justified. Emboldened by this dynamic, the president dismisses the significance of the fact that absolutely no weapons of mass destruction have been found yet in Iraq with a sharp, short and confident “What's the difference?”

Shift the setting to London, however, and we find Bush’s most vigilant wartime ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, flailing around in a sea of Iraq-related troubles.

Personally, Blair’s reputation with the British public remains severely damaged by the inconsistencies and outright mistakes he and his ministers and intelligence agencies made in the run up to the war.

At the New Year, a British newspaper poll asked likely British voters which politicians they trusted the most. The poll ranked the prime minister dead last. While Blair and his Labor Party got a slight boost in more conventional opinion polls from Saddam’s capture, his party pulls only 40 percent of the electorate right now, compared with 35 percent for the suddenly sentient Conservatives. That may not sound like a crisis for Labor, but those numbers are down drastically from the 50 and above he enjoyed for most of his first six years in office.

A tale of two leaks
There may be further setbacks for Blair. Later this month, the final report of the Hutton inquiry will be released. The inquiry, led by Lord Hutton, is investigating the Blair government’s handling of the media in the days just before a key government advisor on WMD, David Kelly, was found dead. The central allegation of Blair critics here is that the prime minister or members of his government identified David Kelly as the source of a damaging BBC report in order to punish him.

The BBC report, which appeared as the war was still raging, cited an unnamed “intelligence source” alleging that the government knew the claims it was making exaggerated claims about Iraqi WMD before the war. The Blair government quickly denied the report and went about trying to discredit it. Ultimately, the BBC reporter was hauled before a parliamentary committee investigating the matter. He defended his story but refused to reveal his source.

Not long afterward, several newspapers named David Kelly was the source, along with confirmation from a Blair defense official. Kelly was found dead days later, and his death was ruled a suicide. The whole mess is now the subject of a judicial inquiry led by a well known jurist, Lord Hutton, who has promised to release a final report this month. Blair has denied he authorized any leak of Kelly’s name, but members of his government have given contradictory evidence before the commission, and his Conservative political rivals are unlikely to let it drop if any question remains after the report is released.

Another charge, another leak
Both the similarities and differences between the tempest swirling around Blair and events in Washington are striking.

In the United States, a similar investigation is underway related to the Iraq war debate. As in Britain, the debate revolves around a leak by the government that appears to have been intended to punish a critic of the war who dared to question the veracity of the allegations being made about Iraq’s WMD.

In the American case, the target of the leak was the former Ambassador Charles Wilson, a critic of the Iraq war whose wife’s previously secret work as a CIA asset was revealed -- in effect, outed -- by a Bush administration official.

The leak to Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Novak led to no suicide in America. Unlike the British case, however, this leak very likely broke a U.S. law making it a federal crime to compromise the identity of a U.S. intelligence agent.

(It also, very likely, led to severe repercussions for countless foreign nationals who, in the interest of aiding America or perhaps simply because they like Wilson’s wife, agreed to have lunch with her at some point during her decade as a CIA asset).

The same and yet, not
The most striking and disturbing similarity in the Kelly case and the Wilson case regards the specific objections each appears to have had with the Anglo-American argument for war.

Like Kelly, whose words challenged the idea that Iraq was a clear and present threat to America or its allies, Wilson discovered that a key American charge against Baghdad simply did not hold water.

Wilson, who spent time in West Africa during the 1990s, was asked by the Bush administration’s State Department in 2002 to travel to Niger and look into charges forwarded by Italian intelligence officials that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons there. Wilson quickly determined the charges to be based on forged documents and other western intelligence agencies who looked into them concurred.

Yet the charge that Iraq was attempting to obtain uranium there wound up in the President’s 2003 State of the Union message anyway, a fact that led to enormous embarrassment (and a retraction) at the White House.

This all seems like distant history in the United States, the land of short-term memory loss. The U.S. leak investigation proceeds, but it proceeds quietly, behind closed doors. Indeed, the Bush administration’s Justice Department is investigating the affair, another stark contrast from the independent judicial inquiry in Britain.

Another difference: the U.S. leak is largely buried by other headlines. It is the usual stuff --  Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant and Britney’s marriage.

The apparent suicide of David Kelly, however, remains front page news in Britain. No eraser yet has wiped the slate clean. The Hutton inquiry’s final report may do so, but questions about Blair’s arguments for war are likely to linger. For whatever reason, the British memory cell appears to be more robust than the one native to America.