Blair's bad bet

July 16, 2004|By Daniel Collings

IT'S THE PERFECT photo. Sitting at President Bush's right hand, British Prime Minister Tony Blair grasped the president's hand firmly and looked at him with a forceful, closed-mouth smile, expressing in one gesture the resolve and unfailing support for which Mr. Blair is now famous.

Taken at the recent NATO summit in Turkey, the photo captured the moment June 28 that the two leaders learned of the successful transfer of sovereignty to Iraq. Little wonder, given Mr. Blair's U.S. popularity, that the image took pride of place on the Bush-Cheney 2004 Web site. Mr. Bush the international statesman, Mr. Blair his loyal ally.

Yet on the other side of the Atlantic, people have a different take. According to a June poll, 62 percent of British citizens dismiss Mr. Blair as Mr. Bush's "poodle" - every bit as demeaning as it sounds.

But if his relationship with Mr. Bush is so unpopular at home, what explains Mr. Blair's commitment? Shared history, culture and emotional ties provide insufficient reason. Has the Anglo-American "special relationship" entered a new era of closeness, or is the Blair-Bush love-fest a one-time thing?

Elaborate spin and carefully managed smiles aside, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are not close friends. Mr. Blair admitted as much to Financial Times journalist Philip Stephens: "If people say to me do I get on with George Bush, the simple answer is, `I do.' I can't really be bothered saying to people, `I don't,' just because it offends people's sensibilities."

The principal reason that Mr. Blair became close to Mr. Bush was that he was absolutely determined to become close - not because he shared the president's views, but because he wanted influence. By pledging total support for the United States, especially after 9/11, Mr. Blair believed he could become Mr. Bush's indispensable ally. Public support was the price he had to pay for private influence. This became Mr. Blair's mantra.

When it came to Iraq, however, Mr. Blair's strategy began to look misguided. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair genuinely believed in the need to confront Saddam Hussein, convinced by the threat from his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and outraged by his human rights abuses.

But Mr. Blair disagreed with Mr. Bush over exactly how to deal with the Iraqi dictator. Of course, admitting as much in public would violate the sacred mantra. So instead, Mr. Blair backed the president to the hilt, hoping for influence behind the scenes.

Having Mr. Blair on his side over Iraq was something Mr. Bush wanted, not least to bolster his credibility. But through an unquestioning belief in the public-support-for-private-influence mantra, Mr. Blair threw away this advantage. Mr. Blair's repeated expressions of support led Mr. Bush to believe that Britain would be with the United States come what may.

Mr. Blair did have goals of his own. He wanted Mr. Bush to work through the United Nations from start to finish, build a genuine international coalition and engage seriously in the Middle East peace process. He raised these with the president repeatedly but never suggested that British support depended on them being addressed. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned a British official two years ago, "The problem with your `yes, but' is that it is too easy to hear the `yes' and forget the `but.'"

In the end, what did Mr. Blair's support earn him? Principally, an assurance that Mr. Bush would exhaust the U.N. process before resorting to war. This sounded promising to British ears, but Mr. Bush's half-hearted effort to secure a second resolution left many bitterly disappointed, as did his refusal to allow the United Nations a major role in Iraqi reconstruction.

In March 2003, Mr. Bush announced that he would publish the road map for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Spun as a major concession by Mr. Blair's supporters, Mr. Bush's failure to stay engaged in the process diminished its value.

Mr. Blair's inability to have a major impact on Mr. Bush over Iraq was not compensated for elsewhere. His failure to persuade the president to exempt Britain from tariffs imposed on foreign steel in March 2002 was humiliating, and despite repeated efforts, Mr. Blair has still not persuaded Mr. Bush to allow the remaining four British nationals held at Guantanamo Bay to be tried in British courts.

Historically, the special relationship has ensured close cooperation between the two countries. The novelty of Mr. Blair's approach was to bind himself closer to the American president than virtually any of his predecessors, minimizing his criticism of Mr. Bush even when their views differed dramatically.

The next British prime minister will be forced to conclude that this strategy did not deliver the influence Mr. Blair craved. Mr. Bush should make the most of his photo opportunities while he can. The extent of Mr. Blair's support for Mr. Bush is likely to prove a blip in the special relationship rather than a new norm.

Daniel Collings was associate author of Blair, Anthony Seldon's biography of Tony Blair.

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