Never glad confident morning again
For a while, Blair and Bush marched together into battle. They were like Reagan and Thatcher, Roosevelt and Churchill. But now, says Martin Walker, the Prime Minister and the President are on the verge of a split
T. he process is drearily familiar from the plots of countless tawdry novels. Opposites attract: two unlikely people begin a passionate affair. Friends all warn them that it cannot last. The friends are ignored as the lovers stand magnificently alone against an uncomprehending world. Then the first trace of an unfamiliar lipstick is found on a collar, and breezily explained away. Someone else's earring is found in a suitcase after a business trip and laughed off as a colleague's practical joke. But suspicions have been roused. Doubts creep in. Headaches are pleaded. What was once charming starts to irritate. Never glad confident morning again.
The improbable partnership of George Bush and Tony Blair, born when they shared toothpaste during their first meeting at Camp David and sealed in blood and victory in Iraq, is running into just this kind of trouble. Once they seemed inseparable, the Lone Ranger and Tonto of international affairs, or perhaps the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the War on Terrorism. Their partnership stirred fading memories of Reagan and Thatcher, Roosevelt and Churchill as the Anglo-Saxons marched once more to battle.
It was never quite convincing. There was something embarrassingly token about that American gesture, allowing a British submarine to fire off a volley of (American-built) cruise missiles to help open the war against the Taleban. Even as Blair was brushing off the domestic taunts about being Bush's poodle, the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted with a bluntly casual honesty that America could handle everything in Iraq, irrespective of the British army, which was sent to war lacking desert boots and a change of camouflage clothing.
Still, it was felt in Downing Street and in the White House that the Brits mattered, that this was a country punching well above its weight in the global championships, a country that singlehandedly belied those neocon jibes about virile Americans being from Mars while the epicene Europeans limped in from Venus. But even in the assiduously cultivated personal relationship between Bush and Blair, with the friendly phone calls and touching gifts back and forth, there is a feeling that something has gone wrong.
The irritants are mounting, even as the political tie to Bush becomes an increasing political liability for Blair at home, enraging the Left in his own party and wrecking his grand hopes of playing a leading role in Europe. While there is still admiration in the US for Blair's political courage, the Prime Minister is seen by Americans as failing to deliver. He could not concoct a form of words at the Berlin summit last weekend that would have secured some grudging Franco-German engagement with the Anglo-American mission in Iraq. He has no more troops to offer the overstretched Americans: the British army has run dry.
The pace at which the relationship is cooling parallels the dizzy declines of their respective opinion polls. The ICM polls in the Guardian this week showed support for the war slumping from 63 per cent in April to 51 per cent in July, to 38 per cent in September. The Gallup polls in USA Today this week gave the latest Democratic candidate, former General Wesley Clark, a threepoint lead over the President. At just 50 per cent, Bush had the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, and his support among American males has dropped 17 per cent in the last month. Such plunges concentrate politicians' minds wonderfully, and demand explanations — and scapegoats. Blair fits the bill. 'We are getting the spillover from Blair's problems,' a White House aide grumbled at a weekend party in Washington, 'Blair brought this Hutton inquiry mess on to himself, and his loss of trust back in Britain is starting to hurt us here.'
'It was Blair who made us go back to the UN for that second resolution that we never won,' recalled another. 'He insisted he had to have a UN mandate because of his own Labour party rebels — and that gave the French the opportunity they wanted to stick it to us.'
The thrash, thrown by the former Bush speechwriter David Frum, and defiantly turned into an autumnal garden party because Hurricane Isabel had cut the electricity, saw a whole series of anti-Blair resentments on parade. Conversational knots gathered around neoconservative paladins like Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen. And Frum's friends from the White House, from the conservative thinktanks and media and Congressional staffs, were more than eager to vent.
'Blair has become a liability,' muttered one veteran of the Reagan administration, as a defence expert asked if we had heard of Blair's latest sell-out of Nato at the Berlin summit. The curious gathered round eagerly, to hear that the Germans were claiming that Blair had finally conceded that the EU should have its own defence staff, independent of Nato. Indeed, a leak from Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's staff to Der Spiegel claimed that an agreement had been reached between France, Britain and Germany. According to the German news magazine, it said, 'We are together convinced that the European Union should be endowed with a joint capacity to plan and conduct operations without recourse to Nato resources and capabilities.'
To those Americans who follow these arcane but strategically vital matters, the question of a European military structure separate from Nato is an open wound. When Blair and Jacques Chirac first floated it in St Mato back in 1998, the conservative Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Gordon Smith warned, 'European leaders should reflect carefully on the true motivation, which many see as a means for Europe to check American power and influence within Nato . . . It is neither in Europe's nor America's interests to undermine our proven national relationship in favour of one with a European superstate whose creation is being driven, in part, by antiAmerican sentiment.'
Then came the complaints about Blair's acquiescence in the European Union's latest perfidy in signing up for the Galileo project. The Bush administration has been angry for months about the European Union's determination to go ahead with its own £2.5 billion satellite navigation system, breaking the long monopoly of the Pentagon's UPS network. Galileo is jointly funded by all 15 EU members (including Britain), and will be under civilian not Pentagon — control. The problem is that the Pentagon depends on GPS for navigation and missile targeting. The Pentagon's deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz earlier this year wrote to EU defence ministers warning that Galileo could be a security risk for Nato as a whole, and noting that the planned frequency for Galileo would overlap the frequency chosen for the Pentagon's own system upgrades. His letter infuriated the French President, Jacques Chirac, who declared that if the EU knuckled under to Pentagon pressure, it would be 'a vassal' to the Americans. The EU went ahead.
All this was bad enough, but now the EU is going to complicate the security issue yet further by bringing in China as a partner in the Galileo project, and tapping the Chinese for a $250 million share of the investment. The EU Commissioner Loyola de Palacio says the goal is to take over the market leadership from the US. 'China will help Galileo to become the major world infrastructure for the growing market for location services.' In return for its share of the investment cost, the Chinese get a very big plum. The China-Europe Global Navigation Satellite System, Technical Training and Co-operation Centre will be based in Beijing. And many US conservatives see China as the mortal geostrategic rival of the future.
Transatlantic relations are suffering a perfect storm. There is a long-term trend; the end of the Cold War removed the common mission of withstanding the Soviet threat. There is a medium-term problem, the divergence of values, as Europeans sniff at the American taste for guns and capital punishment, and Americans sneer at the Eurowimps who shrink from the use of force. And there is the short-term difficulty of the Bush administration and the anger it has provoked by its cavalier dismissals of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, of the International Criminal Court, of the Landmine Treaty and so on. As the glow of victory fades, the White House is now recalling that Blair has been on the opposing side on all these issues.
In those happy April days when British troops took Basra and Americans and Iraqis joined to topple Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, most American doubts were stilled. But there was always one wing of Bush's coalition that had doubts about Blair. The pro-Israel lobby among the neoconservatives constantly warned that all the Europeans, Blair included, were taking a very different line on the Middle East. Israel and its American supporters saw Yasser Arafat as the core of the problem: the Europeans saw him as a necessary component of any conceivable solution, From Suez in 1956 to the European (and British) refusal to provide landing rights for American planes to re-supply Israel in the 1973 war, the Middle East has always been the issue most likely to set Europe and America at loggerheads. And by insisting that its victory in Iraq paved the way for a wider Middle-East settlement, the Bush administration re-opened the old wound, just as its neoconservative backers were accusing Europeans of inveterate antiSemitism.
Into these troubled waters steps Sir David Manning, the new British ambassador in Washington, who is doubtless much relieved to escape London and the Hutton inquiry; this saw him characterised in the Guardian as a high priest of 'a dark, almost Jacobean, cabal at the core of the Blair administration'. Formerly the ambassador to Israel and to Nato, Sir David has most recently been Blair's chief foreign-policy adviser, Downing Street's equivalent of Condoleezza Rice in Bush's National Security Council. Indeed, his constant interaction with Rice during the Iraq crisis was one of the strongest arguments for his appointment.
But as the polls droop and the casualties and recriminations mount, Sir David has arrived to a baptism of fire — and it is not all America's fault. He knows that his own Foreign Office bureaucracy, and his masters, Blair and the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, are deeply attached to two bold British initiatives: the engagement of Iranian moderates, and the wooing of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who was treated to tea with the Queen during a fourday state visit last September. Neither course is popular in Bush's Washington, both at the White House and in Congress.
Even before Bush's defiant 'we stand firm' speech at the UN on Tuesday, the hard-line policies of the neocons continued to prevail. Last week the undersecretary of state for arms control, John Bolton, accused Syria of developing missiles with help from Iran and North Korea, harbouring weapons of mass destruction, allowing militants to cross over into Iraq to attack US troops, and supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At this weekend's Camp David summit Bush will apply intense pressure on the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to help block Iran's nuclear ambitions, Whatever Blair's hopes of engagement with Tehran, in Bush's view Iran remains at the core of the 'axis of evil'.
A distinct oddity of the Bush-Blair relationship was that it flourished despite Blair's previous closeness to Bill Clinton, whose presidency defined for Bush everything that his would not be. And the return of Clinton as star guest at the Labour party conference, at which Blair must re-assert his troubled leadership, will not pass unnoticed in Washington. Blair has the option, after all, of cutting loose the Texan albatross from around his neck, of joining Paris and Berlin in demanding a swift transfer of Iraqi sovereignty under UN control. Along with a new evocation of the Kyoto protocol and a pious appeal for a return to Cancun for a summit dedicated to fair trade for the poor, it would make a humdinger of a conference speech.
It won't happen. Like so many other relationships that run into trouble, Blair seems instead to be thinking of some quiet quality time together to bring back the magic. There is talk already of a Bush visit to Britain in November, possibly a Reaganstyle address to Parliament (If only my friends could see him as he really is . . '). Perhaps Bush could recite again the line that so touched Blair at their first Camp David session: -My dad didn't give me a lot of advice on this job, but he did say that when the chips were down you could always count on the Brits.' But as so many of Blair's predecessors have found — on Suez and at the Reykjavik summit that almost broke Mrs Thatcher's heart, and over German reunification — the question is: can the Brits always count on the Americans?
Martin Walker is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at New York's New School University; and a columnist with UPL