BOMBER BLAIR GOES TO WASHINGTON
Poor old Tony. Americans tend to see him as a bit camp, says Mark Steyn, and he is going to find it hard to reconcile his Eurocentrism
with the principled parochialism of President Bush
New Hampshire WE are at that stage in a new administration when the rest of the world momentarily stops sneering about what a cretin the guy is and stampedes to Washington to try to catch his eye. For in an age of American hegemony kings must compete for the ear of the fool. Traditionally, a US president pays his first foreign visit to Canada, but George W. Bush announced that instead he was off to Mexico and thereby provoked a mass panic-attack in Ottawa. The Canucks begged and pleaded and begged some more and eventually persuaded the White House to let their man fly down to Washing ton and be squeezed in for ten minutes of one-on-one quality time between the Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota and a delegation from the Idaho Potato Compact, which nominal 'summit' would allow Canada to boast that their Prime Minister had been the first foreign leader to meet the new President. Traditionally, this honour goes to Britain, but instead this week end Tony Blair's coming in a distant third after Monsieur . well, go on, all you Eurosnotties who've been doing jokes about that dummy Bush being unable to identify any world leaders, let's see you name Canada's Prime Minister and Mexico's President. And, if you protest that Canada and Mexico are, after all, pretty unimportant countries, bear in mind that they're respectively the United States's first and second biggest trading partners.
When he's been asked about reports that going to Mexico first has upset Canada and Western Europe, President Bush usually says something along the lines of, 'It's importan' to s'pport our frien's both north [he points south] an' south [he points north] an' in Yurnip [points toward Fiji]; But Mr Blair may find the coverage of his two predecessors instructive. The visit from the Canadian Prime Minister received no attention other than 'Bush, Foreign Person Meet,
see page 37', and the only TV report I caught was on CBC, where Jean Chretien looked awkward and uncomfortable next to the affable Dubya. On the other hand, the meeting between Bush and El Presidente Vicente Fox got big-time coverage and the two men looked like old buddies shooting the breeze. Both guys have ranches, wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, and, in an important act of male bonding down south, have gone so far as to exchange boots. Neither president would call this a 'special relationship', since, among Tex-Mex oilmen and
ranchers, special relationships between guys tend to raise eyebrows. But, if any relationship's special in the Bush era, this is it.
By comparison, I can't see Dubya warming to the tone of Tone, who always sounds very queeny when he's on this side of the Atlantic — like one of those peculiarly English camp entertainers who don't really travel well — and who, for all his eagerness to bomb his way into the macho club, is best known here as the fellow who wants to ban hunting. In Texas, Governor Bush passed a law allowing the state to take away your hunting licence, but only if you're a deadbeat dad who's failed to pay his child support. Mr Blair's more sweeping prohibitions are unlikely to commend him to Dubya. Hitherto, serving US presidents and British
prime ministers, whatever their differences in age and class, have usually appeared culturally compatible. But, if you photographed Dubya, Vicente and Tone at a trilateral summit, it's Mr Blair who'd be the odd one out — the foreigner. And not just because Dubya would, quite reasonably, rather be having enchiladas at Vicente's hacienda than an Eccles cake at No. 10. Newsweek, for one, has pronounced Tony Blair 'out'. Cool Britannia is now on ice.
Traditionally, in the American view of the world, the Rio Grande has been wider
than the Atlantic. But Bush has been to Mexico, not least on the celebrated occasion when he was supposedly photographed dancing nude on a bar. By comparison, he's never been to Canada, and I wouldn't blame him if he never did, given that, after the eve-of-election revelation of his 1976 drunk-driving conviction in Maine, an Immigration Canada official smugly announced that that would be grounds for refusing to allow the President into the country. That should add a certain frisson to the run-up to the grand Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this April. Bush has also never been to Britain, or any other Commonwealth
country, except The Gambia, which his father made him go to in 1990 as head of a US delegation attending some Independence Day ceremonies. I can't say I've followed Gambian politics closely since Sir Dawda Jawara was temporarily overthrown while attending the 1981 Royal Wedding, but, if the chaps in Banjul are hoping to cash in on their extra-special relationship with Bush, they're likely to be disappointed, since Dubya has almost certainly forgotten precisely which of those wacky African countries he swung by.
Americans, of course, are famously uninterested in abroad — one-third of the US Congress have never bothered to apply for a passport — but Bush's active resistance to foreign travel seems far more fierce. Those who say he went to a lot of trouble to avoid going to Vietnam are missing the point: he's gone to a lot of trouble to avoid going anywhere. For much of his life, his parents were swanning about all over the map in the service of this great Republic, yet young George was disinclined to join them, except for one summer when he spent a month or so in China visiting his dad, the then US ambassador. In 1998, when he was mulling a presidential run, he thought he needed a bit more experience of the world and so went to see his daughter during her trip to Italy. And that's pretty much it for foreign travel.
Nor does Dubya have that reflexive anglocentrism that marks his father's generation. It's an occupational hazard for correspondents for British publications that older American politicians insist on ingratiating themselves with you by quoting reams of Churchill. Just as this generation was passing into retirement, Clinton and the boomers managed to come up with an even more tiresome strain of anglophilia by quoting reams of John Lennon. Even Al Gore felt obliged to mark the 20th anniversary of Lennon's passing by quoting from the Beatles' Rubber Soul and hailing 'that incredible gestalt that they had'. Britain's cultural clout, in America at least, partly obscured its political and economic decline. But George W. Bush — in one of his more endearing traits — is indifferent to babyboom pop culture. The last time Blair chipped in to bomb Saddam, Clinton rewarded him with a state banquet at the White House at which Stevie Wonder serenaded the missus with 'My Cherie Amour'. This time round, he'll be lucky to get the Oakridge Boys. It wasn't as widely reported, but shortly after failing that impromptu quiz on world leaders sprung on him by a TV host Bush flunked just as badly an impromptu quiz on rock and movies sprung on him by another TV host. During the campaign, someone asked him about the Taleban. Bush looked blank, until prompted that it was something to do with Afghanistan. thought you said some band.' he said, deftly tying together his two areas of non-expertise.
Well, we have it on the authority of the BBC, the Guardian, Le Monde et al. that Bush is a boob, just as President Reagan was. You may recall the mirth in London when various Labour grandees visited the White House and the B-movie moron failed to realise who Denis Healey was. But, of course, there's no reason in the world why a US president should know who Denis Healey is. In fact, there's no reason for you to know who he is. And the danger in foreign policy is in assuming that, because you can name the deputy transport minister of Kazakhstan, you have any real insight into what's going on there. This has been the hallmark of the Clinton era, distinguished by a weird, self-defeating, twintrack strategy: the rhetorical cockiness of one-size-fits-all nation-building — Made
leine Albright's 'we are the indispensable nation' routine, Al Gore claiming 'the rest of the world wants to be more like America' — coupled with a wilful refusal to identify your own national interest. 'A politically united Europe,' declared deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, 'will be a stronger partner to advance our common goals.' Oh, really?
This kind of guff — the moral imperialism of which Tony Blair is an even more gung-ho peddler than Clinton — was tossed in the trash on 20 January. In the second presidential debate, when Bush spoke of an America that was 'humble, but strong' as opposed to one that was 'arrogant' and thought it could be 'all things to all people', he wasn't really talking about the nation per se so much as its embodiment in the commander-in-chief. Bush may not be able to tell the Slovakonians from the Slobodenians, but he knows enough to know that Nato can't will Kosovo into Connecticut. So who's the real bonehead? In the course of his short visit. Mr Blair will meet a president who speaks humbly but carries a big stick. He will learn, for example, that a European army will come at a price. Europe has informed America that Nato must respect the 'autonomy of EU decision-making'. The US learned something about that during Kosovo, when the Serbs might as well have sat in on Nato meetings. It will be politely pointed out to the British that European military integration will mean the end of Anglo-American intelligence-pooling — one of the few concrete examples of the 'special relationship'.
Likewise, Mr Blair will be given a choice of going along with missile defence, or being ignored. President Bush is willing to abandon Cold War theories of Mutually Assured Destruction in order to reconnect with an older American philosophy: as Lincoln saw it. America was the first nation that could not be destroyed from without — it was simply impossible to imagine circumstances in which the European empires could attack and defeat the US, a situation that remained true for a century until the advent of intercontinental missiles. For Bush, missile defence makes it that much easier to be 'humble, but strong'.
In other words, Dubya's incurious insularity is more accurately a kind of principled parochialism. That's the significance of his trip to Mexico: meeting with Blair is about big-power global management; but meeting with Vicente Fox is about real things — immigration, drug trafficking, and a country that within Bush's term of office will become America's main trading partner. Not that Bush will get any credit for attending to his backyard: after years of deploring American imperialism, Europe's anti-Yank elites have seamlessly moved on to being just as snide and patronising about American isolationism. In that sense, the Bush ascendancy symbolises a broader divergence between the US and its traditional allies. For Canada and Western Europe, America is increasingly the misfit of the Western democracies — wedded to such dodgy propositions as capital punishment, gun rights, non-socialised health care, non-confiscatory taxation, imperial measurements, free speech, etc. Meanwhile, the Britannic inheritance is on the wane everywhere, but especially in Britain, where the Blair project is dismantling it with indecent haste. And, without it, what can the least anglophile President in living memory and the most Eurocentric Prime Minister ever have in common?
Since the second world war, every change of party in the White House or Downing Street has presaged a similar change at the next election across the Atlantic: Churchill and Eisenhower; Kennedy and Wilson; Nixon and Heath; Wilson and Carter; Thatcher and Reagan; Clinton and Blair. But, unless you believe William Hague's going to pull off a stunning surprise, the Anglo-American political cycles are no longer in sync. That's why Tony Blair will be back in at No. 10, but irredeemably out in Washington.