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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 10:15 GMT
With friends like Rumsfeld...

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Donald Rumsfeld
Lending a helping hand
If this was Donald Rumsfeld trying to help Tony Blair, he had better not consider a career in the diplomatic service.

With one brief comment he has managed to blow a series of massive holes in the prime minister's armour.

He undermined the prime minister's claims he is a major influence on President Bush.

He handed the prime minister's anti-war faction the opportunity to declare Britain now had a way out of conflict.

And he allowed the dissenters to claim he had finally let the cat out of the bag and shown what they had been saying all along - that the US is determined to go to war on Iraq with or without the support of any other country.

No wonder Downing Street hit the phones within seconds of his intervention.

Tony Blair must be utterly dismayed that Mr Rumsfeld has pulled the rug from under his feet just as the crisis within the UN is approaching critical mass and extra-sensitive diplomacy is required.

More damage

But the US defence secretary's comments have had another consequence.

They have added to a growing feeling amongst those who support action that the sooner it comes the better.

The longer the diplomatic process continues, the more damage is being done - to international relations, to the UN, and to Tony Blair's standing.

None of the key countries are about to change their positions, despite the prime minister's predictions that things may change once cards have to be put on the table.

And if the prime minister believes he will emerge victorious at home after a short, clean, successful war - with or without the UN's backing - then he might as well get on with it.

Mr Blair can claim he has done what his dissenters want by pursuing the UN route to the last.

And he can claim that the French insistence it would veto a second resolution under any circumstances is the "unreasonable veto" he has previously said he would ignore.

Meanwhile, his defence secretary Geoff Hoon has signalled that Britain is ready to play the 1441 card - by declaring the original UN resolution gives countries the right to take action against Saddam without further permission.

This is surely the end of the diplomatic game.

And few in Westminster now believe Britain will not be at war within days.

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