President Bush’s state visit to the United Kingdom Nov. 18-21 will spotlight his close relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the two leaders’ collaboration over the Iraq war.
However, the visit comes as Mr. Blair faces pressure at home and in Europe to distance himself from the Bush administration, according to analysts. This is because he is perceived there as having received little in return for his loyalty to the United States and British participation in the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
According to Peter Riddell, political columnist and assistant editor of the London Times, unless Mr. Blair works harder to assert British interests when dealing with the United States, he risks “being ignored in much of Europe and taken for granted in Washington.”
Both President Bush and Mr. Blair have lost public support as a result of their handling of the war and its aftermath, but Mr. Blair, analysts point out, has suffered much more in this regard than has Mr. Bush.
The British public and Mr. Blair’s Labor party strongly opposed the war. Many people in Britain feel the prime minister misled them into war over Iraq on the basis of faulty, misinterpreted, or exaggerated intelligence.
The failure so far to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and difficulties encountered during the postwar stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq, such as frequent terrorist attacks, have worsened Mr. Blair’s domestic situation.
In July, a top British biological weapons expert, David Kelly, committed suicide. Mr. Kelly was the source for a controversial report by the British Broadcasting Corp. alleging that the Blair government had exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons.
The British government’s pre-war intelligence and actions have come under the scrutiny of two investigations. One was a parliamentary inquiry that largely exonerated the government. The second, led by Lord Hutton of Bresagh, is an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Kelly; it is expected to issue a report in January.
The Iraq war has also created tensions in the historically close Anglo-American relationship.
Initially, these focused on whether British and American intelligence services reached the same conclusions regarding Iraq’s weapons program before the war, and what information the two countries shared with each other.
In addition, since the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, Mr. Blair has, like many leaders, called for the United Nations to play a larger political role in the reconstruction of Iraq than the Bush administration has been willing to give it.
Other current tensions between the United States and Britain include Bush administration concerns about British diplomatic overtures toward Iran and Syria, and British government concerns about the status of British “enemy combatant” detainees in a U.S. Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lost political capital
Mr. Blair is said by analysts to have recently lost most of his political capital with the Bush administration.
This is because of what is perceived in Washington as his failure to persuade France and Germany to support U.S.-led military action against Iraq.
In addition, experts say Mr. Blair’s standing in Europe also suffered from his handling of the war in Iraq.
According to Mr. Riddell, the assistant editor of the London Times, Mr. Blair is now regarded as an isolated figure in Europe who is unpopular with other leaders and the public because of his staunch support for the Bush administration over invading Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has voiced concern that the Blair government has shifted its approach on the issue of European Union defense integration by softening its previous opposition to plans for the European Union to establish its own operational planning headquarters. Washington views those plans as a threat to NATO.
The Blair government said it would never do anything to challenge the primacy of NATO in European security and that it has rejected the headquarters proposal and only agreed to allow some EU member-states to pursue greater defense integration than others — a policy known as “structured cooperation.”
A trans-Atlantic bridge
Mr. Blair has made the centerpiece of his foreign policy working closely with the United States while engaging strongly with continental Europe. His aim has been to make his country a bridge between Europe and the United States.
Mr. Blair often says he should not have to chose between Europe and America — meaning that he believes there is no contradiction in having close relations with both.
Mr. Riddell of the London Times said that all postwar British prime ministers but one have made close relations with Washington — especially during a foreign policy crisis — their top foreign policy priority. The one exception was Prime Minister Edward Heath (prime minister in 1970-74), who put more emphasis on relations with Europe.
He also explained that successive British governments have sought to be insiders in the Washington policy-making process to compensate for Britain’s reduced global influence in the post-World War II period.
Mr. Riddell is author of the new book, “Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the ‘Special Relationship,’” which he discussed recently at the American Enterprise Institute.
The so-called “special relationship” between the United States and Britain is rooted in ties based on language, culture and history, and on the collaboration of both countries during World War II. After the war, the two countries developed especially close ties in the areas of defense, nuclear weapons and intelligence.
Clinton and Blair
During the Clinton administration news reports regularly referred to the close ties between Mr. Blair and former President Bill Clinton — both of whom are center-left politicians who believe there is a “third way” between capitalism and socialism.
In addition, the two leaders’ political advisers and campaigns worked together closely and borrowed ideas from each other.
But Mr. Riddell contends that Messrs. Blair and Clinton did not get along as well as is commonly thought, and that they had a number of disagreements such as over how to deal with Iraq and Bosnia.
The most significant differences between these two leaders surfaced during the Kosovo war, when Mr. Clinton initially ruled out the use of ground troops while Mr. Blair repeatedly made the case for possible use of ground troops.
The lesson of Kosovo, for Mr. Blair, was that he needed to work behind the scenes as an insider in order to influence the United States. As Mr. Riddell puts it, Mr. Blair learned that he should be a “candid friend in private, but a loyal ally in public.”
Bush and Blair
Mr. Blair did not wait until the inauguration of the Bush administration to cultivate close ties with it, and began working with the Bush team before the 2000 election.
Although their political orientations are different, Messrs. Bush and Blair share a number of attributes as political leaders. Both have an approach to politics that is pragmatic and instinctive, rather than ideological, and place great emphasis on personal relations with other leaders.
In addition, there are important similarities in their world views. According to Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, both have a Manichean outlook on the world — seeing it in terms of good and evil — and challenge the long-standing principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries.
Both leaders are also military interventionists. However, Mr. Blair stresses the humanitarian role force can play in world affairs more than Mr. Bush does.
September 11, 2001
After the terrorist attacks against the United States carried out with hijacked jetliners, Mr. Riddell notes, Mr. Blair was the only world leader who really understood how September 11 changed the way Americans view the world by making them feel vulnerable to the unexpected.
Mr. Blair frequently sent personal notes to Mr. Bush after the attacks in which he offered his advice on a number of issues, such as his preference for acting first in Afghanistan and dealing with Iraq later. Mr. Riddell compares these notes to the wartime correspondence between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. Riddell also observes that prior to September 11, Mr. Blair was even more concerned than Mr. Bush about the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The prime minister has been focused on this issue since he came to office in 1997 and started reading intelligence reports. He also has a consistent record of making those concerns public, according to Mr. Riddell.
As Mr. Blair said this year: “People say that you are doing this because the Americans are telling you to do it. I keep telling them that it’s worse than that. I believe in it.”
‘Mr. Bush’s poodle’
Mr. Blair is frequently lampooned in the British and European press as being Mr. Bush’s “poodle.” Mr. Riddell has said: “Blair is no poodle, but he must be careful not to be taken for granted.”
Klaus Larres, who is Royal Holloway professor of international relations and foreign policy at the University of London, has said: “The poodle idea is an exaggeration” and “Mr. Blair believes that only a close relationship with the U.S. can help to make Great Britain a real player on the international scene.”
People who know the prime minister well say they are certain that he acts on the basis of strong personal convictions, such as his longstanding concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs and possible links to terrorism.
Another such conviction is Mr. Blair’s view that when the United States takes military action, it should do so with allies rather than alone. This belief has been at the center of his close ties to Mr. Bush and his role in the Iraq war.
According to Mr. Riddell: “For Blair, the risks of a unilateral America outweighed the risks of going to war in the face of domestic and European hostility.”
The Blair government believes that it has had what it regards as a positive influence on the Bush administration by encouraging it to work more closely with its allies.
Mr. Riddell said that some people argue that Messrs. Bush and Blair reached a bargain over the Iraq war in which Mr. Bush agreed to seek United Nations authorization for the war and to push for peace in the Middle East in exchange for British military participation in the war.
Mr. Larres of the University of London said that he does not believe there was a quid pro quo, but that Mr. Blair’s support for the war gave him more influence over the push for Middle East peace than he otherwise would have had.
Whether such an agreement was actually made, analysts agree that Mr. Blair’s domestic need for U.N. approval of the Iraq war was an important factor in the Bush administration’s decision to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for the war, postwar occupation, and a multinational stabilization force.
Mr. Blair reportedly has also had influence on the Bush administration’s foreign policy in a number of other areas.
These include encouraging the administration to negotiate withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, rather than simply walk away from it; play a more activist role in Africa; conclude the Doha round of global trade talks being conducted through the World Trade Organization, and develop a new global warming agreement to replace the Kyoto accord.
Analysts say that on all these issues, Mr. Blair’s views and British policy are much closer to those of Britain’s European partners than to those of the U.S. government.