History leaves Bush and Blair behind

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: February 22 2007

It was the end of the affair. There were some valiant protests otherwise: the relationship, we heard, is as special as ever. The White House was perfectly content for Britain to withdraw troops from Iraq just as US reinforcements are surging into Baghdad. Downing Street chimed in that George W. Bush and Tony Blair had talked it all through. President and prime minister were as one. It sounded awfully unconvincing.

The early return of 2,000 British soldiers from southern Iraq, it is fair to say, is technically consistent with the agreed strategy progressively to transfer control of security to Iraqi forces. And Basra, of course, is not Baghdad. Politics, though, reaches beyond detail. The importance of Mr Blair’s announcement this week lay in the symbolism.

With an eye on his legacy, the British prime minister has decided that there is nothing more to be done save create a framework for disengagement.

Thus for the first time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Britain has decoupled its own commitment from decisions taken in Washington. By late summer the British presence will be down to around 5,000 troops. Simultaneously, Mr Bush’s staunchest ally will be leaving 10 Downing Street. To all intents and purposes the president will be on his own.

I do not imagine that Gordon Brown, Mr Blair’s presumed successor, will want anything but friendly relations with Mr Bush. The attachment to Washington is embedded too deeply in the DNA of Britain’s political establishment for a new prime minister to risk an open breach. That said, it would be more curious still if Mr Brown did not seize the opportunity now presented to him to set a more independent course.

For Mr Bush, the symbolism of British troops departing Iraq is awful. As the Republican senator John Warner put it, the American public will be “quite perplexed” by the sight of the president adding US forces as his principal ally begins to pull out. Privately, US officials concede that the British decision strengthens the perception that Mr Bush is fighting a war that is already lost.

The tide of anti-war opinion in middle America has anyway advanced still further since the Republicans’ heavy defeat in last November’s mid-term congressional elections. Thus far the political caution of the Democrats – they fear being accused of undermining the troops already in Iraq – and the residual loyalty of enough Senate Republicans have given Mr Bush something of a breathing space. It is unlikely to last.

In Washington this week, the impression I have taken is of an administration that has lost for ever the capacity to set the terms of political debate. Among senior officials there is gathering talk of an exodus of the best and brightest. An increasingly beleaguered and irascible vice-president Dick Cheney is driven to accusing Democrats in Congress of offering comfort to the enemy. At the White House, the commander-in-chief repeats his mantra about staying the course in Iraq, but is visibly powerless to shape events.

On the other side of the Atlantic, senior British officials and diplomats still seethe with frustration at the degree to which Britain has been dragged into the mess that is Iraq. Some blame Mr Blair for his readiness to back the US president. Others, aware that British deference to Washington has longer antecedents than the present prime minister, speak of the arrogant incompetence in Washington.

The Bush administration, it is commonly said in London, has lacked the strategic grasp to understand the myriad and complex connections between conflicts in the Middle East. It has never appreciated the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to regional instability. Nor has it realised that, by seeing everything through the prism of a war on terrorism, it has denied itself important strategic options. By setting stringent preconditions for dialogue – with Iran, Hamas and others – it has limited its own capacity to act.

These are not simply the criticisms of instinctive anti-Americans; nor necessarily of people who opposed the Iraq war from the outset. I have heard it said many times that Mr Bush has been personally attentive to Mr Blair’s views. What has been missing has been strategic intelligence and a willingness at the White House to follow through on commitments made to Mr Blair. Britain’s mistake was to shoulder responsibility without any commensurate authority to determine policy.

Mr Blair, it should be said, recoils from such criticisms of the US. Whatever his personal frustrations with Mr Bush, and they must be intense, the prime minister holds firmly to the view that Britain’s security interests remain inextricably tied to those of the US. There is nothing to be gained from bad-mouthing the nation’s most valued ally.

In a broad sense he is right. Look around the world – at the chaos in the Middle East, poverty in Africa, proliferation of unconventional weapons, Islamist terrorism, competition for scarce energy resources, broken states and the rest – and the US remains the indispensable power. Measure the differences between America and Europe and, though substantial and real enough, they are slight when compared with, say, the values and world views of Russia or China.

Paradoxically, this week’s parting of the ways comes at a moment when the administration seems more aware than it has ever been of the price it has paid for hubristic unilateralism. The recent outline agreement with North Korea seems, at a glance, to mark a return of pragmatism to the conduct of foreign policy.

Over dinner this week I heard a senior administration official say that the media and much of the international community had misread Washington’s recent decision to ratchet up pressure on Iran. The tougher stance was not a prelude to war but part of a determined effort to make diplomacy work in persuading Tehran to abandon its ambitions for a nuclear weapons capability.

Welcome as it is – and I am mystified as to why some Europeans prefer to scoff at rather than applaud the shift – this rediscovery of the efficacy of multilateralism comes too late for this administration to regain the trust of its allies. The war in Iraq has anyway crystallised the more fundamental change in the nature of the transatlantic alliance since the end of the cold war. History is leaving Messrs Bush and Blair behind.