Sunday, July 30, 2006

An interesting piece from today's Telegraph

This conflict will long outlast Blair and Bush

Matthew d'Ancona (today's Sunday Telegraph)

As so often when these two men meet, George W Bush was the host and Tony Blair the choreographer. "We feel deeply…" the Prime Minister declared - and, on cue, the President shared his pain. There were many professions of empathy for the suffering of the Lebanese and of the Israeli casualties of this conflict. Even as Mr Bush and Mr Blair prepared for their press conference in Washington, early reports flashed on the screen that Hezbollah had struck an Israeli hospital in Nahariya - already evacuated, as luck would have it.

The President and Prime Minister were as one in their public show of sympathy for the victims of what Mr Blair called the Middle East's "tragedy", and agreed that a UN Security Council resolution this week was needed to mandate an "international stabilisation force". But there was no shift in strategy, no anti-Israel wobble. All the empathy was a consolation prize for those who had been deluded enough to expect such a shift.

Time and again, the two men made clear that they have no interest whatsoever in a temporary ceasefire that merely salves the consciences of those outside the region. The President repeatedly used the phrase "lasting peace". The Prime Minister cautioned that "we shouldn't forget how this began" and that the nations of the West should "stop apologising" for the actions they take against Islamism. Mr Bush said that "it's important that we do what's right" rather than what is "immediately popular". For good measure, Mr Blair warned Iran and Syria of "the risk of increasing confrontation". The grim possibility of escalation lurked beneath every call for a truce.

Not for the first time, the two men have arrived at a point of convergence from very different starting-points. Israel, as has often been said, is the only foreign country that can truly affect domestic politics in America: in Washington, the West Bank is routinely referred to as "Judea and Samaria". Indeed, for Mr Bush to weaken in his support for Israel now would be a grave political risk in a year of mid-term elections.

For Mr Blair, the pressures are precisely opposite. Public opinion, according to all recent surveys, is ranged squarely against him over the Middle East and his relationship with Mr Bush. The Labour movement despises the President with a passion and is generally hostile to Israel. The Cabinet is riven with doubts and weary of Mr Blair's foreign adventures. "There are now three fronts: Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," one senior Blairite minister fretted to me last week. "It's not even clear that the Israeli strategy is working."

And the differences between Blair and Bush do not end there. Far more than the President, the Prime Minister has an unshakeable belief in supranational institutions such as the UN and the potential of dynamic diplomacy: he will have much higher hopes of this week's Security Council meeting than his American ally.

Mr Bush is what physicists would call a "steady-state" politician: a man of set beliefs who believes that the relentless application of his convictions will achieve results. Mr Blair, by contrast, is a kinetic force, a perpetuum mobile, and a veteran of Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement who believes in the magic of urgency and the power of pace. Part of the Prime Minister's "irreducible core" is a touching faith - unbroken by countless European summits and the failure of the UN second resolution on Iraq - that people will agree if they sit for long enough in a room well-stocked with coffee, ProPlus and goodwill.

So different, then, and yet so united. In the analysis of the Bush-Blair relationship, the greatest distraction is the fixation with the balance of power: whether or not the Prime Minister is the President's "poodle", who says "Yo!" to whom, whether Mr Blair puts enough pressure on Mr Bush. All that one needs to know in this context is that the US is a hyper-power, and that Britain is not. "People keep pointing out that we're the junior partner as if this is some blinding revelation," one exasperated Downing Street insider said to me. "Of course we are. What nation would be anything else in comparison to America?"

In truth, what the Prime Minister has in Washington is not power, but access - more so than any other head of government. The question the rest of the world ought to ask is: should Mr Blair make the most of that access or not? Should he go for the cheap thrill of criticising the President in public - to what end, it is not clear - or stick with the arduous, often frustrating, and occasionally humiliating business of cajoling, coaxing and schmoozing him in private?

It was, after all, Mr Blair who persuaded Mr Bush's predecessor to go to war in Kosovo. It was Mr Blair who urged Mr Bush to become the first US President explicitly to endorse a two-state solution and convinced him to sign up to the (now-defunct) Middle East road-map on the eve of war with Iraq. It was Mr Blair who persuaded him at least to try the UN route before that conflict.

When it comes to the facts of geopolitical life, Mr Blair - unlike so many of his Continental counterparts - is not in cosy denial. He acknowledges that America is by some margin the most powerful country in the world, and in the history of the world; that the Atlantic alliance is still the only military coalition that counts; and that nothing the UN or the EU says makes a blind bit of difference to an American President - Republican or Democrat - who has made up his mind.

Mr Blair's belief that the British Prime Minister must always engage with the occupant of the Oval Office is pragmatic politics of the purest sort. It is those who declare that he should "stand up to Bush", denounce the President in public or otherwise throw his weight around, who inhabit a fantasy world. A Bush in the hand, so to speak, is better than the alternative: an isolated America.

And so the diplomatic caravan moves on to New York, where the UN will thrash out the details of the planned multi-national force. By the time these troops arrive - assuming they ever do - the conflict will have lasted the best part of a month, perhaps longer. The world will sigh with relief, and avert its gaze once more. Thank heavens, some will say, that Bush and Blair will soon be gone.

They will indeed. Be in no doubt, however: the Islamists are not going anywhere, whoever occupies the White House or Number 10. Last week, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared that "the war with Israel does not depend on ceasefire… it is a jihad… all the world is a battlefield open in front of us. We will attack everywhere." More than anything that the President and Prime Minister said on Friday or the UN agrees this week, that should be a text for our times.

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