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Blair Hasn't Abandoned Bush Yet

By Dennis Byrne

Some comforting words from Europe that Americans don't get to hear

Nothing would please President Bush haters more than losing his chief ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

And so, in one of the more outrageous examples of biased reporting, the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that Blair, indeed, has come close to--if he hasn't already--abandoning Bush.

The reporting from the two newspapers from this side of the Atlantic said Blair was pressuring Bush to "shift his policies" on the Middle East, including a broader Israel-Palestinian peace initiative and more direct U.S. negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons.

The New York Times on Nov. 14 said: "President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel kept up their tough talk on Iran on Monday, warning it once again to drop its nuclear ambitions, even as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain suggested that Tehran could take a role in stabilizing Iraq under a 'new partnership.'" [emphasis added] Remarkably, the same day the newspaper carried a different story saying: "But [Blair] took pains, in his annual foreign policy speech, to avoid giving the impression that he was making major policy changes in response to uncertainties surrounding the Bush administration after the American elections last week."

The Washington Post on Nov. 18 proclaimed in a story: "President Bush came under new pressure yesterday at home and abroad to alter his policies in the Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed for a broad Arab-Israeli peace initiative to help stabilize Iraq...." That assessment came even though the same day's paper had another story: "Blair, who has been President Bush's chief foreign ally in the Iraq war, offered no dramatic new policy proposals on Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he called the region's 'core issue.'"

How do you account for the papers running contradictory stories on the same day? Perhaps it is because the negative (from the administration's point of view) stories were filed from Washington D.C. and the other, more accurate, stories were filed from the newspapers' London bureaus.

Blair's speech (the full text is here) actually is an eloquent defense of the foreign policy that he and Bush have followed in partnership. What Blair did say was important. And is worth repeating at length.

In Iraq, the pressure from such terrorism has changed the nature of the battle. Its purpose is now plain: to provoke civil war. The violence is not therefore an accident or a result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists - Al Qaida with the Sunni insurgents, Iranian backed Shia militia - to foment hatred and thus throttle at birth the possibility of non-sectarian democracy. These external elements are, of course, the same elements driving extremism the world over.

This is crucial to our understanding of the right strategy to combat it. The majority of Iraqis don't want this extremism - they showed that when they voted for an explicitly non-sectarian Government. But the terrorists are trying to propel them towards it.

He said the three-part strategy requires, a "compact" between the government and all parties, committed to non-sectarian government and democracy; true governing capability, especially in the "disbursement of money for reconstruction and rebuilding," and plugging any gaps in training, equipment and in command and control "within the time frame set down by General [George] Casey to transition to Iraqi control."

However, most crucial is this. Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back, not only in Iraq but outside it too.

In other words, a major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes, with a propaganda that may be, indeed is, totally false; but is, nonetheless, attractive to much of the Arab street.

That is what I call a 'whole Middle East" strategy.'"

He said he outlined this "whole Middle East" strategy back in July in a California speech and that he and Bush were in accord, but the stories painted the speech as a deviation from that strategy. Perhaps it can be excused as journalistic instinct to try to find something "new." But the "new" in his speech was that he was standing by his previous position. In a climate where Bush haters are expecting the Anglo-American alliance to unravel over the Middle East, it should be news that there's no news.

If anything, Blair is calling for a strengthening of the alliance:

But just for a moment, leave aside the obvious and deep-rooted ties of history with America. Leave aside the fact that only, together, when the US finally entered WWII, were we able to succeed. Leave aside the prospect of Britain facing the Cold War for half a century without the transatlantic alliance, an absurd thought. Leave it all aside and focus on today and the future.

Take any problem Britain wants solving: global terrorism (assuming you don't believe that but for George Bush it wouldn't exist); climate change; Israel/Palestine; Iran and North Korea's nuclear program; world trade; Africa in general, right now Sudan in particular; global poverty. We may agree or disagree with the US position on some or all of these issues. But none of these vital British concerns can be addressed, let alone solved, without America. Without America, Kosovo could not have been attempted. Without Kosovo, Milosevic might still be running Serbia; and the Balkans rather than stabilizing with a potential future in Europe, would have remained the destabilizing force it was for most of the 20th Century. We need America. That is a fact.

All that, in a sense, is obvious. But -runs the more sophisticated argument--America we like, this American President we don't. This is a comforting argument. It separates anti-America from anti-Bush. However, it is also a cop-out. Let us not kid ourselves. 9/11 would have changed any American President's foreign policy. 3000 innocent people dead in the streets of New York; the Al Qaida operatives who did it, trained out of Afghanistan. Following 9/11, American policy was going to shift. It was going to get out after the terrorists with all America's might and any President who didn't do it, wasn't going to be President for long.

When I said, after 9/11 that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with America, I said it because I believed it. But I also thought it was profoundly in Britain's interests. I knew this attack wasn't aimed at America per se; but at America as the leading representative of our values. Look round the world today; look even just within Europe. Britain is not the only country that faces a terrorist threat. We all do, allies and non-allies, anyone in fact that isn't "them." I thought then and I think now that defeating this threat--whose roots are deep and have been a long time growing--was going to take a generation; and I knew then and know now that defeating it, was never going to be done without an America prepared to lead as America, to its credit, has.

And the truth is, for Britain, it is always right for us to keep our partnership with America strong.

Post 9/11, there were no half-hearted allies of America. There were allies and others. We were allies then and that's how we should stay; and the test of any alliance, I'm afraid, is not when it's easy but when it's tough.

Funny, that doesn't sound like Blair pushing Bush into a major policy change. Next time, the Washington reporters who write about a speech should read it.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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