Casting loose

October 01, 2004

A STRIKING CONTRAST between Britain and the United States is the huge amount of attention that the British people have paid to the plight of an English civilian held hostage in Iraq and threatened with beheading. No such anguish has gripped America when the victims have been Americans. Part of the explanation for this could lie in the energies of the tabloid press in London. The British, too, are less accustomed to violent death than Americans are. But in any case, the fate of Kenneth Bigley has riveted America's most significant ally - and underscored the political change that the United Kingdom is undergoing.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair beat back a move by his own Labor Party to endorse an early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Delegates to a Labor conference, where sentiment against the war was strong, decided in the end that abandoning Iraq might be worse than staying, and that, moreover, there was no sense in handing their prime minister a defeat that would only help the rival Tories. So Mr. Blair prevailed, but the price was clear: From now on, he must tend to the traditional centers of his own party, not to the "New Labor" rump that he rode to power, and perhaps never again will he be able to risk casting himself as faithful companion to his brasher American counterpart.

Earlier this week, Mr. Blair delivered a speech on Iraq in which he used the word apology, even if he didn't apologize. Unlike President Bush, he recognized that things have gone badly, and that there are legitimate criticisms of the war. But, like the president, he seems to be guided by a vision that somehow transcends the grubby, and bloody, reality. He said he still thinks he was right on Iraq. "Judgments aren't the same as facts," he said. "I only know what I believe."

The world, he said (echoing Mr. Bush), is better off with Saddam Hussein removed from power. The point he neglected to address, though, was whether the actual consequences that stem from that removal are worth the benefit.

The family of Mr. Bigley doesn't think so, understandably. They, too, only know what they believe, which is that they want him back in one piece. It may be unfair to the prime minister to pay so much attention to their agony, but perhaps that's the British way - and, in any case, it's the price Mr. Blair must pay for leading his nation into a war it didn't want to fight.

What has Britain gained from its close adherence to American policy? Not much - no influence over the conduct of the occupation, and no influence, either, over the question of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, or over issues of global warming, both of which were of central importance to Mr. Blair. His inability to get results out of Washington has not been lost on his compatriots, and the war in Iraq may be remembered one day as the end of the era in which America could count unequivocally on British friendship and support.

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