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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Blair's balancing act
Prime minister Tony Blair
Blair is facing calls for restraint
Nick Assinder

For the first time, the British government has come close to admitting there are likely to be civilian casualties as a result of retaliatory action against those deemed responsible for the New York atrocities.

On the day international development minister Clare Short called for no response that could cost innocent lives, Downing Street made it plain the government could give no such pledge.

International development minister Clare Short
Short fears for innocent lives
The official line given by the prime minister's spokesman was that no one wanted to see further innocent lives lost, and that any response would only come after calm, rational deliberation.

"But we do need to bring those responsible to account because of the horrific deeds last week, but also to prevent further atrocities.

"So there will be a response and that is likely to lead to difficult decisions and choices."

In other words, when - and it surely is "when" rather than "if" - military action is launched there will be "collateral damage".

Lethal attacks

This is not what Ms Short and others urging caution want to hear. They are not only concerned about the possible deaths of civilians in Afghanistan or, possibly, Iraq and elsewhere.

They are also deeply fearful that George Bush and Tony Blair's "war with terrorism" will inflame the situation and lead to further lethal attacks on the US and allies such as the UK.

Aftermath of the New York attack
Atrocities cannot go unpunished
And, while Ms Short has been quietly slapped down by the prime minister, the fears she has expressed - and which were voiced by MPs Tam Dalyell and George Galloway in last Friday's emergency Common debate - are beginning to grow.

When the time does come for Tony Blair to join any US action, he is certain to face a barrage of criticism.

And, the further the distance between the US attacks and the retaliation, the more those voicing opposing to action are likely to increase.

At the same time, however, the overwhelming view is that the perpetrators of the US attacks cannot be allowed to escape unpunished.

If they are not tackled they will only continue their campaign of terror against the West, probably with renewed vigour, it is argued.

Middle East peace

There are undoubtedly diplomatic moves that have to be taken, most obviously over the West's relationship with Israel and the moves to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.

But no one believes that will be enough, or that it should be enough.

So the prime minister is facing by far his most sensitive balancing act since he came to power.

The decisions he makes now will mark his second term in office and will irrevocably redefine his leadership.

At the moment he has overwhelming public support for military action against terrorism.

It seems likely that support will continue, certainly into the near future.

What is incalculable is exactly how long that backing will last and what effect the reality of military action and its consequences might have on public opinion.

These are decisions and calculations no prime minister ever wants to have to take. Sadly Mr Blair can not avoid them.

Key stories


War view



See also:

17 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Warning of 'difficult choices' to come
16 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Call for caution over military action
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