Leading article: If Mr Blair has any leverage, now is the time to use it

The Independent

Published: 28 July 2006

Tony Blair arrives in Washington today for talks with George Bush. We are told that at the top of the agenda will be the conflagration in the Middle East. If ever there was a need for a British Prime Minister to use the leverage provided by the "special relationship" between our two nations and demand that the US President act for the international good, it is now. If ever there was a time for Mr Blair to urge his friend and ally that Israel must be reined in, it has surely arrived.

The prospect of a multilateral diplomatic solution to the crisis in Lebanon is as remote as ever. This week's emergency summit in Rome failed to call for an immediate ceasefire. Israel has taken this as a green light to continue military operations. Indeed, its leaders seem to be growing more strident. The Israeli Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, told Israel Army Radio yesterday that the residents of southern Lebanon have been given ample time to leave and that all those remaining must be considered "terrorists". He went on, chillingly, to call for all villages in the region to be flattened by the Israeli air force. This would be a truly murderous escalation - and one the US President, with his unique influence, has a clear duty to prevent.

Yet we can have no confidence that Mr Blair will put any such pressure on Mr Bush when they meet today. Let us bear in mind that it was the UK, along with the US, that contrived to ruin the unanimity of the Rome summit. And let us remember that Mr Blair has failed to utter even the slightest criticism of US policy since Mr Bush entered the White House.

The result of this uncritical approach has been a grievous diminishment of our Prime Minister's ability to be a moral voice in world affairs. How can Mr Blair, for instance, condemn Russia's actions in Chechnya, when British troops were involved in the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq? Indeed, how can he complain about Israel's disproportionate action in Lebanon, when he has himself endorsed the noxious doctrine of a "preventive" war conceived by the Bush administration? The present spat between America and Britain over the transportation of bombs from the US to Israel via a Scottish airport is a belated attempt to show that the UK cannot be taken for granted. But to cite this as evidence of Britain's healthy independence, will not wash.

Some maintain that Mr Blair is more frank with the US President behind closed doors. Yet the snatch of conversation between the two men picked up at the recent G8 meeting in St Petersburg revealed a very one-sided relationship. And those who still believe the UK benefits from this alliance must explain what Britain has received from America since Mr Blair decided to embark on his uncritical alliance with Mr Bush. It was suggested that a new US push for a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians would be Mr Blair's reward for his loyalty over Iraq. But the "road map" was torn up long ago, without a squeak of opposition from America. Britain has been let down in countless other ways too. There has been no movement from the US on climate change. Global trade talks have collapsed, in part due to US intransigence. This relationship has not even yielded a fair and reciprocal extradition treaty.

Meanwhile, the Middle East continues to burn. The Israelis are losing friends rapidly. Even their staunchest supporters are finding it difficult to justify the bombardment of Lebanon. The region needs a ceasefire, not only for the sake of the people of Lebanon, but for Israel's reputation. But will Mr Blair say as much to Mr Bush today? Will he call for the President to act? The sad truth is that Mr Blair has gone so far down the road of spineless acquiescence, there must be doubts over whether he would even be taken seriously if he did.