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The Dynamic Duo

From the April 7, 2003 issue: Is there trouble ahead for this beautiful friendship?

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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IN THE DAYS before the British Parliament voted on a resolution endorsing war with Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair was a nervous wreck. He feared losing so many Labor members that the opposition Conservatives would be in a pivotal position to save or embarrass him. The Bush administration rushed to his rescue. A campaign was mobilized to induce Conservatives to vote with Blair. A barrage of phone calls was made from Washington by administration officials, key Republicans, and anyone else Bush advisers could find who was close to Conservative members of Parliament. Blair won on a 412-to-149 vote and Conservative backing jumped from 129 to 152.

In the end, the aggressive support of the Bush administration was not crucial. Blair would have won without it. But the episode reveals the lengths to which Bush has gone to aid Blair, his brave and loyal ally against Iraq. In discussions at the White House, Bush is tireless in reminding his inner circle: "We have to do everything we can to help Tony Blair. We don't want his government to fall." Now Blair is asking for more help in two areas where Bush has strong reservations about making concessions--Israel and the Palestinians, and the role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq. A rupture between Bush and Blair isn't likely, but agreement won't be easy.

Bush and Blair formed a tight relationship early in the Bush presidency. This was surprising because Blair had been so close to President Clinton--personally, politically, and ideologically. Blair admired Clinton's intelligence and told associates Clinton had an amazing gift for instantly understanding any issue, even ones he hadn't dealt with. But Blair also found big talk by Clinton was often not followed by action. Bush was less scintillating but more reliable. With Bush, Blair was assured the special relationship between America and Great Britain was on firm and predictable ground.

One act by Blair solidified the friendship in the eyes of Bush and his top aides. On September 20, 2001,the day of Bush's speech to Congress and the nation after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Blair flew to Washington for dinner with Bush. During the speech, Blair sat in the House of Representatives balcony next to Laura Bush, then flew back to London after only a few hours in Washington. Bush was impressed and grateful. After the Taliban was crushed in Afghanistan, Blair was on board from the beginning on the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, administration officials say. Since the war began, Bush and Bush have talked daily. Last week they conferred for two days at Camp David.

Without Blair, the president would be in a dicey situation and far less able to recruit allies against Iraq. Blair's presence meant the war would never be unilateral. Blair, however, lacks the widespread support at home for ousting Saddam that Bush has in the United States. The left wing of Blair's Labor party is fervently antiwar, as are the Liberal Democrats. A slim majority of British public opinion didn't line up behind the war until the invasion started.

Bush feels indebted to Blair and he's shown it. The president began a press conference with Blair at Camp David with a remarkable tribute. "America has learned a lot about Tony Blair over the last days," Bush said. "We've learned that he's a man of his word. We've learned he's a man of courage, that he's a man of vision, and we're proud to have him as a friend." More important, Bush has acceded time after time to serious steps or gestures that Blair believed would aid him politically in Great Britain.

Blair credits himself with persuading the president to take the case against Saddam to the U.N. last fall. Secretary of State Powell gave Bush the same advice. In truth, both were pushing an open door. At the U.N., Blair urged Bush to seek a resolution, which Bush did. Then he got Bush to accept a narrow resolution that didn't incorporate early U.N. resolutions on human rights and other non-disarmament matters.

Blair, again partly for political relief at home, insisted on new arms inspections in Iraq--but not inspections that could be enforced "by any means necessary," the language favored by the president. Blair also asked Bush to go along with a second U.N. Security Council meeting earlier this year, which Bush thought was unnecessary but nonetheless agreed to. And the prime minister argued he needed a second U.N. resolution on Iraq to assuage his critics. This proved an embarrassment. The resolution failed despite intense lobbying by Bush and Blair.

That's quite a list of concessions by Bush and there's more. On March 14, Bush in Washington and Blair in London announced the imminent release of the so-called road map for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. It was drafted by the "quartet"--the United States, the U.N., the European Union, and Russia--and is to be made public once the new Palestinian prime minister, Abu-Mazin, is sworn in. For Blair, the announcement was intended to placate Labor left-wingers obsessed with the Palestinian cause and to establish Blair as a significant player in the Middle East. Bush has deep qualms about the road map. Among other things, it treats Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation as morally equivalent. Blair used the occasion of the announcement to advocate "evenhandedness," a code word for pressuring Israel.

The final concession--for now, anyway--came at the Azores summit three days before the war began. The summit itself was as much Bush's idea as Blair's. But the notion of going back to the U.N. to recruit it to oversee postwar Iraq was Blair's. Bush agreed with enlisting the U.N., but not for the commanding role envisioned by Blair. The two discussed the issue at Camp David without reaching agreement. Afterwards Blair said the U.N. "has got to be closely involved in this process." But deliberations on this are "best done" privately.

Accommodating Blair may be impossible. For one thing, Blair has a higher opinion of the U.N. than Bush does. And he has more amicable relations with U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. In London last week, Blair said the U.N. should be "centrally involved" in administering postwar Iraq. He said this would be "in the interests of the international community and the coalition forces." Of course it would also be in Blair's political interest. The Labor cabinet member for international development, Claire Short, threatened to resign over the war but didn't, raising suspicions Blair had bought her off by promising to push for a major U.N. role.

Bush is wary of the U.N. for good reasons. It doesn't make sense for an organization opposed to the war in Iraq to control the people and the country that the war liberated. Besides, an administration official says, the U.N. failed disastrously in its efforts to administer Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Cambodia. "The Iraqis don't need someone running the country for them," the official added. The U.S. initially wants the military to administer postwar Iraq along with a council of Iraqis. The U.N. would serve as an umbrella group through which countries could funnel humanitarian assistance. If Bush has his way, the U.N. would immediately turn over the oil-for-food program and the $12 billion it holds in escrow to the new Iraq governing body.

The president and Blair are even further apart on the Middle East. Their most visible difference is over Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Bush has called him a roadblock to peace and urged his ouster. Blair treats Arafat as a legitimate leader, phoning him when release of the road map was announced and once more since then. "I know Arafat," says former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. "He will see this and use it and say, 'I'm the address for the world' to reach the Palestinians." Last January, Blair set up a London conference on Palestinian reform and asked Arafat to send a delegation. Arafat tried, but Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon barred the Palestinians from leaving.

On the road map itself, Bush and Blair are at odds. Blair wants the document to be released and implemented. Bush sees it as a pretext for reviving talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The document, according to Bush, should be open to revision with fresh ideas from both sides. Administration officials are also skeptical about the quartet's willingness to hold the Palestinians accountable--for stopping suicide attacks on Israel, for instance. After all, the U.N., E.U., and the Russians have been unwilling to impose accountability on Saddam.

As chummy as Bush and Blair are, prospects for agreement on the U.N. and Middle East are poor. Bush feels beholden to Blair, but gratitude has its limits. Until now, Blair has faithfully followed the advice of Winston Churchill that the British government should "never get separated from the Americans." But his closeness to Bush has led to sneering accusations that he's become Bush's "poodle." For Blair, once the war in Iraq is won, a little separation from the Americans may be what politics at home requires. Regardless, the special relationship will survive.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.