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Interview: Phillip Stephens, Managing Editor Of The 'Financial Times,' Discusses That The U.S. And Great Britain Appear Ready To Go To War Against Iraq

Weekend Edition Saturday: February 1, 2003

Blair, Bush Confer on Iraq

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The United States and Great Britain appear ready to go to war against Iraq, but President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have yet to agree on what role the United Nations will play in deciding whether or when to fight. After intense meetings at the White House yesterday, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair said that a decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein would happen in the coming weeks. Although Mr. Blair emphasized the need for a new UN resolution giving up on Iraq's willingness to disarm, Mr. Bush said that UN Resolution 1441 already authorizes military action. Philip Stephens is the managing editor of The Financial Times and joins us from London.

Mr. Stephens, thanks for being here with us.

Mr. PHILIP STEPHENS (Managing Editor, The Financial Times): Good morning.

SIMON: And is this a real difference of opinion between Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush?

Mr. STEPHENS: I think it is. I don't think there's a real difference on the substance. Mr. Blair, we're told, made it very clear to the president that if America goes to war, Britain will be alongside. But Mr. Blair desperately needs for his own political reasons a UN resolution and the understanding on the British side is that while for Mr. Bush this is a sort of optional extra, as it were, the president will give the British some time, a matter of weeks, to try and get that resolution.

SIMON: We shall note that, I guess, 30 to 40,000 troops, or a third of Britain's military, has been committed to any forthcoming military campaign.

Mr. STEPHENS: Yes. This is a very large commitment. It's small in terms of the overall force that will be used in the Gulf but very large in relative terms in Britain. And that I think is part of the concern in the British population among voters here about the war but there is a much bigger one which says that we shouldn't go to war unless the UN actually gives its endorsements and, if you like, international law says it's the right thing to do. So this is what Mr. Blair needs and he's now relying on Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector, to give another firm indictment, if you like, of Saddam Hussein's non-cooperation in order to build support in the Security Council for that resolution.

SIMON: Those big, fat weekend newspapers in London this morning, and we should note, I don't believe the Financial Times publishes on Saturday, do they?

Mr. STEPHENS: It does, yes.

SIMON: Oh, I beg your pardon.

Mr. STEPHENS: We're here.

SIMON: Well, we'll look forward to our copy later. But I'm told there's a report in the weekend papers that says that Mr. Blair expects 13 of the 15 member nations at the UN Security Council to vote in favor of a second resolution. Is that your understanding?

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, I think that's as much as in hope as expectation. Mr. Blair is an optimist on these things, and he is convinced that he can persuade people, but he will, as I said, depend on Hans Blix giving, if you like, a failed report card for Saddam Hussein. It'll be very hard to persuade the French to come round and countries on the Security Council like Syria are going to be hard to persuade, and, of course, there's a big imponderable China. We don't know at this stage whether China would actually support a war or would use its veto on the Security Council.

SIMON: In the 30 seconds or so we have left, Mr. Stephens, Prime Minister Blair's going to meet with Prime Minister Chirac on Tuesday. And Mr. Blair, we know, spent some time vacationing in the south of France. Does he have an ability to turn around the French position that maybe the United States does not?

Mr. STEPHENS: Well, he has, I think, a better chance than the United States, but it's not an easy task. Anglo-French relations haven't been very good lately. President Chirac is facing very large domestic opposition to a war. This is a big moment, I think, for Mr. Blair, for Mr. Chirac and for Anglo-French relations, as well as for the international community as a whole.

SIMON: Philip Stephens, managing editor of The Financial Times in London. It does publish today. Thanks very much for being with us.

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