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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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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.