Blair in a bind

April 03, 2003|By Ivo H. Daalder

WASHINGTON - On Day 5 of the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to meet President Bush at Camp David with an ambitious agenda in hand. There was, of course, the war to discuss now that progress toward Saddam Hussein's ouster appeared to be going less well than expected.

But Mr. Blair's main concern in making the trip was to discuss what he delicately called the "diplomatic implications of recent events for the future." The diplomacy prior to the war had been a mess, and Mr. Blair wanted to get an early start on repairing the damage done.

He was going to meet Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair said before flying off, to talk about three issues: "how we get America and Europe working again together as partners, and not as rivals; ... how we rebuild Iraq post-Saddam; and also of course our approach to the Middle East peace process."

Unfortunately, none of these issues was on Mr. Bush's agenda. This became clear at the news conference that followed their meeting.

Mr. Blair's failure to gain Mr. Bush's assurance that he will make a diplomatic investment after the war as large as his military investment in the war - that is, put his heart and soul into it - reflects in part the White House's preoccupation with prosecuting a war that has turned out to be much less of a cakewalk than many officials had hoped, and not a few expected.

This is an administration that sets clear priorities, and winning the war is now Priority One. Figuring out how to win the peace - let alone getting relations with key allies back on track - is something that can wait.

But there are real differences between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair concerning the three issues. Not only does this make their resolution less likely, but it profoundly complicates Mr. Blair's position at home and as a major European player and threatens to isolate the United States even more than it is today.

Consider U.S.-European relations.

There is little denying that they have been deeply - and negatively - affected by the Iraq debate. France and Germany remain adamantly opposed to the war - as do vast majorities of European publics (even in those countries whose governments are counted as part of the "coalition of the willing").

Mr. Blair, who sees himself as the bridge between the United States and Europe, is being stretched to the breaking point.

He needs Mr. Bush, as well as the leaders of France and Germany, to rise above their differences.

But there is little indication that Mr. Bush is prepared to show the magnanimity that this requires or that French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are prepared to come to Washington to declare fealty to Mr. Bush's mission in Iraq. So the trans-Atlantic gap will continue to grow, leaving Mr. Blair with very little to hold on to.

Responsibility for post-Hussein Iraq also is likely to create tension between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. Having failed to secure a U.N. resolution authorizing the war, Mr. Blair is committed to ensuring the United Nations is "centrally involved" in Iraq after the war.

"It is important that whatever administration takes over in Iraq, that that has the authority of the U.N. behind it," Mr. Blair declared.

But that's easier said than done, given the deep divisions within the U.N. Security Council. While Mr. Bush would welcome a U.N. resolution endorsing the administrative arrangements the victors in the war plan to set up, the council majority that opposes the war is unlikely to legitimize it after the fact. Since Mr. Bush will not negotiate the postwar administrative structure with those who opposed the war, Mr. Blair will again be left in a bind.

Finally, there's the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Mr. Blair succeeded in getting Mr. Bush to commit again to publishing the "roadmap" for resolving the conflict. But Mr. Blair wants more. Like all of Europe, he wants Mr. Bush to exert America's considerable leverage to deliver Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the peace table, ready to make the concessions most Europeans deem necessary for peace to become a reality.

Mr. Blair is bound to be disappointed. Mr. Bush not only faces re-election next year, but he believes that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who need to make the concessions necessary for peace.

Mr. Blair will likely find himself very much on his own on every one of these three issues. In part this is because Mr. Blair recognizes the danger each of these issues represents, whereas the same may not be true for Mr. Bush.

But that only underscores a larger point - even as these two leaders are joined in fighting this war, it is clear they have a very different view of the world within which it is being fought. Unless bridged, that difference is sooner or later bound to lead them onto divergent paths.

Ivo H. Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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