Oxford, Feb. 28: In a vaulted and august chamber that has rung to American voices as disparate as those of O.J. Simpson and Richard Nixon, Britain’s youthful elite assembled last night to ask themselves a question designed to provoke as Britain prepares for a possible war alongside the US in Iraq: Is America itself the world’s biggest threat to peace'
Perhaps outlandish to most Americans, it is a question that has been forcefully raised in massive public protests and private salons across Britain, Washington’s most committed ally in the campaign against Saddam Hussein.
It is among the many questions put to Tony Blair, the increasingly embattled prime minister, as he seeks to rally Britain to the fray.
Ultimately, after two hours of debate in the 180-year-old hall of the Oxford Union — a contrarian student body that famously declared in 1933 that it would “in no circumstances fight for King and Country” — the answer came down to a 195-151 vote in America’s favour. Of course, all of that may not matter all that much. The rarefied deliberations of one of Britain’s oldest and best-known student bodies might yield scant solace at the White House or Camp David.
Perhaps, as some here suggested, tongue-in-cheek, support for America was just a way of cocking a snook at the French.
But the Oxford Union, once seen as a cradle of national leaders, takes itself seriously. The 1933 pacifist vote, for instance — reviled by Winston Churchill as “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal” — may have “encouraged Hitler in his decision to invade Europe”, the Oxford Union says on its website.
That may seem a bold claim. What was clear last night was that every speaker — from those who derided President George Bush’s grasp of syntax to Sabina Cudic, a Balkan woman who declared she would not be alive to speak if it were not for American intervention — was in some awe at the US’ unbridled power now aimed at Iraq.
“We all agree that America has immense power but not that it has the will to use that power for bad,” said Tom Hay, a British student who opposed the notion of calling the US the greatest barrier to peace.
With its speakers in tuxedos and the Oxford Union’s officers decked out in black tailcoats and white ties, the setting might have seemed demure, but the language was not always so.
“The United States is creating terrorism out of unilateralism and arrogance,” said Alex Betts, a British student speaker, who asked whether in fact it was “the Bush doctrine that makes the United States the rogue state”.
The theme was echoed by a Canadian, Andrew Zadel, who called the US “powerful, dangerous and expansionist”, rephrasing the American Constitution to begin: “We the people of America and to hell with everyone else.”
Bob Marshall-Andrews, a legislator from Blair’s Labour Party, declared: “The America that we indict today is the illegitimate America of George W. Bush.”