Bush-Blair bonding isolates old allies
LONDON,England (CNN) -- The latest bombing of Iraq may have bonded George W. Bush and Tony Blair, two leaders about to meet for the first time, as brothers in war. But it has left the U.S. and Britain almost isolated in world opinion.
Russia, China and Arab leaders have condemned Friday's air strikes against Iraqi command and control systems and even the French, partners in earlier Iraqi operations, have spoken out against action they see as creating "damaging tensions."
The new Bush regime had been expected to pursue a tougher containment strategy against Saddam Hussein and it is unlikely to suffer political penalties for doing so. Blair faces more complications and has a tricky diplomatic hand to play.
Complaints about the bombing among British Labour members of parliament are not confined to regular left-wing protesters but are coming from loyalists too, like Clive Soley, the Labour MPs' chairman.
There are signs that some ministers are upset by the minimal consultation in advance of the air strikes, especially as they seem to have been prompted by British fears of risks to its Tornado aircraft, which have to fly lower than the U.S. patrol aircraft.
In Europe there is a suspicion that Blair, who cherishes notions of acting as a bridge between America and the EU, has been too eager to please Bush, who will play host to him at Camp David on Friday, in the hope of rescuing something of the special relationship he enjoyed with his Democrat soulmate Bill Clinton.
Blair’s spokesman, insisting there has been no change in policy, says that it was “coincidental” that the Baghdad bombing took place a few days before his visit.
Already Blair has been dropping hints that he will back the American National Missile Defense Plan (NMD) and provide for the necessary up-grading of radar facilities in Britain.
He tells Forbes magazine in a forthcoming interview: "I understand totally America's desire to make sure its people are properly protected." If he does support Bush on NMD, that will cause sharp divisions in Europe.
Other European leaders oppose the missile defence plan as they say it would involve scrapping of the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty which could set off an expensive new worldwide arms race. French President Jacques Chirac condemns NMD as "an invitation to proliferation."
Downing Street says that it is not yet certain that the new US administration’s missile defence plans will mean an end to the ABM treaty, despite the new US defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissing it as “ancient history”.
The British Government says it has no need to decide yet whether to provide increased radar facilities to help NMD because there will be no decision for some time on what system will be used. America, it says, plans to talk to its allies and to the Russians and Chinese before any decision. .
Blair has been accorded the honour of being the first European leader invited to America to see Bush, something which will do him no harm with a British General Election imminent.
His spokesman said on Tuesday that Blair was pleased to be the first European Prime Minister to visit Bush and glad of the chance for extended informal talks which the stay at Camp David would bring. “We are proud to be America’s closest ally.”
Blair, he said, wanted to establish a personal relationship of trust and confidence with the President that would help them in practical problem solving. There was a “unique bond” which served Britain and America well. It did not mean they would always agree but they would always be able to talk things through straightforwardly.
But although the two countries remain natural military allies both are nervous of playing up the notion of a "special relationship" too obviously. There are tensions for the two leaders to resolve at Camp David.
The new American administration is suspicious of the European Union's new Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), particularly because the French tend to talk up the degree of its independence from NATO.
Blair insists that the RRF will be complementary to NATO, performing the tasks which the Atlantic Alliance chooses not to and never a substitute for it.
But he and Chirac were the driving force behind its formation and he will have to offer more reassurance at Camp David.
Although both men are known for their charm and are likely to accentuate the positive on this initial "getting to know you" occasion, there are potential spats too between Britain and America on trade issues, airline access, global warming and genetically-modified food.
The British detachment from the European single currency is also likely to come under scrutiny in the talks with Bush. Blair could be asked to say when he thinks Britain will join.
And Blair is likely to press the new president to make clear his intentions about U.S. troops in the Balkans, following hints from Bush's election team that they could soon be pulled back.
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