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Will Boris Johnson become Donald Trump's apologist for war with Iran?

Just as Blair rallied behind Bush nearly two decades ago, the British prime minister is reluctantly rallying to Trump's aid as he embarks on an illegal path towards war
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets US President Donald Trump upon his arrival for the Nato summit in Watford, north of London, on 4 December 2019 (AFP)

It’s 17 years since British Prime Minister Tony Blair established a well-earned reputation as George W Bush’s poodle in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

For all his three successive general election victories, Blair will always be remembered as the British prime minister who led Britain into a murderous, illegal and calamitous war in Iraq.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Boris Johnson was not yet in politics. However, as editor of the high Tory Spectator magazine, he threw his weight behind the disastrous conflict. 

So as prime minister, will he follow suit? 

Will Johnson perform the same service for US President Donald Trump in Iran that Blair did for Bush in Iraq? Will he become the international apologist for the US president’s illegal decision to order the assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani?

It’s looking that way, though we don’t know for sure. 

The correct response

Johnson is a shallow politician, but not a stupid one. He’s squirming. He doesn’t want to join forces with Trump’s America. He knows the risks. But it looks horribly likely that over the next few weeks circumstances will force him to do so. 

Johnson has been sitting on the fence ever since the news of Soleimani's assassination was brought to him while on holiday with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds as a guest of the Von Bismark family – descendants of German iron chancellor Otto Von Bismark – on the sunbaked Caribbean island of Mustique.

All the signs are that the Johnson government is reluctantly rallying to the aid of Trump as he embarks on his illegal path towards war

On the one hand, he is reluctant to condemn Trump for his reckless and stupid act of war against Iran. On the other hand, he’s so far refrained from saying that he stands "shoulder to shoulder" with Trump - the usual language favoured by British prime ministers.

The morally correct response, sanctioned by international law, is to stand up for Britain’s often repeated claim to be a guardian of fair-dealing and legality. That means condemning not just the assassination of Soleimani but also Trump’s subsequent demented threats against Iran.

It means leading the international community in an expression of moral outrage against US criminality and belligerence. But Johnson will be extremely reluctant to alienate Britain’s closest ally at a time when he needs to strike a trade deal with Trump post-Brexit.

Even though the United States is now demanding a blood price for that trade deal with the United States – British backing for Trump’s act of war against Iran.

Not a warmonger

One can think of few less suitable places than the playboy resort of Mustique to make such delicate judgements upon which so many lives depend. Johnson should have returned at once. This is not the first time he has refused to return from holiday at a crisis moment. 

Johnson is not a warmonger. He sees himself as having been elected prime minister to secure Brexit rather than embark on reckless foreign military adventures

Eight years ago, as mayor of London, he was widely criticised when he delayed returning to Britain when rioting broke out. And with Johnson absent, policy has taken shape without him. 

On British television on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab backed what he called the "right" of the US president to assassinate Soleimani. Raab, who worked as a lawyer at the foreign office before entering politics, is in a position to know much better than most that the assassination of Soleimani is against international law.

Nor did Raab criticise Trump’s latest threat to escalate the confrontation by hitting more than 50 Iranian cultural sites. Meanwhile British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace took another significant step towards a British endorsement of Trump’s action when he said that the United States was "entitled to defend itself" "against those posing an imminent threat to their citizens".

My judgement, as someone who knows the prime minister well, is that Johnson would prefer to keep out of this. Johnson is not a warmonger, and sees himself as having been elected prime minister to secure Brexit rather than embark on reckless foreign military adventures.

Nor was he consulted about Trump’s decision, in itself a grave humiliation for the prime minister of a country which claims to be the United States’ closest ally. And a dangerous humiliation because British forces work closely with the United States across the region, and will face significant extra threats because of Trump’s action.

'Unforgivable idiocy'

The trouble is that Johnson risks being drawn into conflict whether he wants to or not. And Brexit is not the only factor pushing Johnson towards Trump.

Britain’s two closest allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are both hostile to Iran. Furthermore, the military alliance between Britain and the United States in the Middle East is so close that it would take an effort of will for Johnson to disentangle himself from US adventurism.

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If conflict escalates, it will be hard for Johnson to stop Britain getting dragged in. The only way to do so would be an outright repudiation of US conduct. 

So far the wisest words have come from defeated Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn called on Johnson to condemn Trump’s "belligerent actions and rhetoric".

With Corbyn on his way out, perhaps his potential successors matter more. One of them is the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry. Yesterday she spoke for millions when she condemned the "unforgivable idiocy" of Trump, as well as the "inexplicable silence" of Johnson. 

Today, Johnson at last returns from his break in the sun. He will be forced to make a statement to parliament this week and Raab is also expected to go to Washington on Thursday.

But all the signs are that the Johnson government is reluctantly rallying to the aid of Donald Trump as he embarks on his illegal path towards war, just as Blair rallied behind Bush nearly two decades ago.

These are dark, dark times.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.