On the Blair-Bush relationship
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed questions to what extent Blair is able to affect Bush's policies revival in Egypt
In the lead up to Bush's visit to London last week, Tony Blair delivered a speech on 10 November on Britain's foreign policy, which high level diplomats in London described as the key to understanding his government's policy in general. The British prime minister said his foreign policy rested on two main pillars, the United States and the European Union. The trans-Atlantic partnership between the two had been severely strained by the war in Iraq, and he called on the European nations to heal the breach by consolidating their ties with America instead of trying to isolate and marginalise it. It would be a catastrophe, he said, if Europe allowed its anti-American feelings to govern its foreign policy.
The first time Blair met Bush was at Camp David in February 2001, shortly after Bush was sworn in as president. Journalists were surprised at how well the British prime minister, who had enjoyed a particularly warm friendship with former US President Bill Clinton, seemed to get along with Bush, and how quickly the two men built up a strong rapport. The explanation provided for this unlikely alliance by British officials at the time was that the two men shared the same world view and that Blair admired Bush as a forceful man of action capable of making decisive decisions. But is this still true today?
One of the basic elements in Blair's new policy is what is now being called the "Sunni strategy", which aims at winning over Iraq's Sunni community. London believes its recent call to push the transfer of power to the Iraqis forward to next June to fail if it is not supported by the Sunni community. Britain's representative in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, revealed some details of Britain's new policy during a recent visit to London.
Speaking at a press conference, Greenstock said the policy aimed at reassuring Iraqi Sunnis that their voice will be heard in the new Iraq and that their regions will benefit from a higher proportion of reconstruction contracts and hence from more job opportunities. The main thrust of London's policy on Iraq was shifting from the military to the political arena, and the focus now was on introducing radical changes to the current situation in Iraq.
Without openly criticising US policy in Iraq, Greenstock jokingly held up Britain's colonial past as an asset when it came to nation building: "We British are pragmatists who tend to adopt a pessimistic approach to things. That is why we see the obstacles on the way. We have been in Iraq in the past. We have a lot of experience on how to deal with rebellions from Kenya to Northern Ireland." He was expressing the sense of frustration felt by many senior British diplomats who believe the Americans lack the necessary experience for dealing with the complex situation in Iraq.
Greenstock disclosed that Blair had managed to wring a concession from Bush by getting him to agree that British companies would be allowed to compete on an equal footing with American companies for reconstruction contracts. Commenting on the "concession", a British official ironically noted that "At last they remember we are part of the coalition!" Bush's visit to London, the first state visit by an American president to Britain for nearly a century, came at a particularly critical moment. The invitation was extended two years ago, long before the US-led invasion of Iraq and when both Bush and Blair were riding high in the opinion polls. The popularity rating of the two men has since dropped dramatically, and the visit provoked massive protest marches, with more than 100,000 demonstrators taking to the streets of London to denounce the war in Iraq and Bush's visit to Britain. In an attempt to defuse tensions, the two leaders announced that power would be transferred to the Iraqi people far sooner than originally planned, while coalition troops would remain in Iraq only to "help" the transitory Iraqi authority undertake its tasks.
Apologists for Blair's uncritical support of Bush's policies claim that he exerts a moderating influence on the US president. But how much influence does Blair really enjoy with Bush? As the British press reported during the visit, the prime minister failed to convince his guest to make concessions on two important issues:
- The first is over the nine British detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay. Although in response to British pressure the US administration backed down from its original decision to submit two of them to military tribunals, Bush refused Blair's request that they be extradited to Britain.
- The second is over the tariffs on European steel imposed by Bush in March 2002. These were recently declared illegal by the World Trade Organisation, which gave the US until next month to cancel the tariffs, otherwise the European Union -- and other states -- will have the right to impose similar tariffs on imported goods from America. Although the imposition of tariffs on American exports, especially on fruit from Florida, will hurt Bush's reelection prospects, he did not respond to Blair's request to cancel the tariffs.
Blair succeeded in convincing Bush to publish the Middle East roadmap for peace in exchange for support by the UK for the American invasion of Iraq. He also succeeded in convincing the US administration to deal directly with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. But the roadmap has come to a dead end, at a time Moscow is insisting that the roadmap be validated by the Security Council.
British anti-war protestors toppled a six-metre high papier-mache statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square, in an eerie replay of the highly- publicised toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in a Baghdad square last April. It is significant that the people of Britain, America's closest ally, are treating Bush with the same contempt accorded to his most despised foe.