A jolly bad show for Bush in London

November 24, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Why in the world did President Bush go to London? If it was to help Prime Minister Tony Blair, his pal and co-sponsor of the invasion of Iraq, deal with an angry British public, the visit certainly was a flop. And a predictable one.

American presidents in hot water at home have often fled overseas and basked in friendly receptions abroad. Such flights have been proven balms to the presidential ego and temporary distractions from the causes of presidential woe.

But Mr. Bush's essentially stealth trip to Old Blighty, including that helicopter embedding into Buckingham Palace in the black of night, spoke volumes about the circumstances under which the Man Who Came to Dinner called on good Queen Elizabeth.

Instead of cheering crowds lining the streets for Mr. Bush, few Britons got a glimpse of him. What tens of thousands of souls did turn out for was a chanting, placard-pumping march through the heart of London protesting his untimely visit and, in their view, his unwarranted and unwanted war.

Coming around the 40th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy, what a contrast it was with Mr. Kennedy's rousing, triumphant, public entry into Berlin in June 1963. Had Mr. Bush had an opportunity, in the fashion of Mr. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, to proclaim, "I am a Londoner," you can only imagine the ensuing public uproar.

Protesters, by the nature of their job description, are given to excess. Still, the erection of a gold-covered papier-machM-i effigy of Mr. Bush branding a missile in Trafalgar Square, and its toppling to mirror the way the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad was brought crashing down, was a graphic commentary on how U.S.-British relations -- in the streets, at least -- have fallen.

The unhappy juxtaposition of the Bush visit and the deadly terrorist attacks on a British consulate and bank in Istanbul only intensified the protesters' anger, obliging Mr. Blair to deny any link between those attacks and the U.S.-British decision to invade Iraq. What caused them, the British prime minister told a news conference, "is not the president of the United States, is not the alliance between America and Britain," but terrorism and those who perpetrate it.

But Britain is a country where polls have indicated little public support for the Iraq invasion and occupation as part and parcel of the war on terrorism. Mr. Blair never bought into the rationale of "regime change" as justification for the invasion, citing instead the threat of weapons of mass destruction, yet to be found.

Neither has the British public accepted the idea of a link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks to characterize Iraq as a legitimate target in the war on terrorism. Even Mr. Bush tardily acknowledged that such a link could not be established. Only after the invasion was he legitimately able to declare Iraq to be the "central front" in the war on terror -- and arguably able to take credit for making it so.

It has been reported that Mr. Bush's visit to London cost British taxpayers $9 million for the unprecedented security thrown up around London to protect him. More than 5,000 police officers were put on the streets to guard a foreign leader whose war policy, embraced by their own prime minister, has made him about as welcome as a dog at a cat party.

The spectacle of the American president in tails wining and dining at Buckingham Palace, when he apparently has little time to attend the funerals of American servicemen killed in the war he started, only compounded the folly of his London rescue operation for Mr. Blair.

Even as Mr. Bush was undertaking it virtually undercover, the American dead being brought home in caskets also were being kept largely out of public view, lest the cost of his war policy in terms of the human loss be overly emphasized. Abroad and at home, stealth seems to be the standard operating procedure of this war administration.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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