Bush Goes To England, Blair Goes To Hell

As George W. Bush begins his three-day state visit to the United Kingdom, a blatant photo-op oriented around next year's elections, the gaffes have been coming thick and fast. Before Air Force One even left the ground, Bush and his handlers managed to enrage or alienate a substantial portion of the administration he's going to visit.

First, there's the matter of timing. Tony Blair's badly listing ship of state needs a visit from the U.S. president about as much as the Titanic needed a chance encounter with an iceberg. Plummeting in the polls, Blair is fighting for his political life, struggling to stave off the contempt of the Labour party rank and file as well as a newly emboldened Tory party -- a set of circumstances directly attributable to his unblinking, servile support of Bush's war on Iraq. The last thing he needs is to be seen on tens of millions of British television screens standing shoulder to shoulder with his unpopular American cousin.

Blair had better hope that he can tread water in quicksand. An informal poll conducted by the Independent newspaper showed popular disapproval of Bush's visit running at 10 to one. A more sensitive American administration might have chosen to steer clear, giving Blair some breathing room and some time to distract his embittered electorate with a renewed emphasis on social and domestic issues. But no: Blair will be forced to state and re-state his support for Bush's Iraq policies as the spectres of David Kelly and 60-odd dead British military personnel swirl around his shoulders.

It only gets worse from there. Having evidently mistaken England for Baghdad, or worse, some genuflecting banana republic, the whizzes in charge of Bush's security detail proceeded to issue an absurd set of demands seemingly calculated to infuriate their hosts.

In the name of Bush's safety, the Secret Service requested that the London Underground, the provider of transportation to millions daily, be closed down. American snipers and special agents traveling with Bush were to be given diplomatic immunity in the event that they should kill any of the expected 100,000 protesters. An artillery weapon called the "mini gun," normally used in battlefield conditions, was to be flown in in case it was deemed necessary to mow down protesters en masse. Vast sections of the city were to be closed to all traffic, forcing the closure of untold hundreds of businesses. Americans were to be placed in charge of all security operations, ahead of the British Scotland Yard, the MI5, the Metropolitan police, and Blair's own security detail. And U.S. fighter jets and Blackhawk attack helicopters, armed with surface-to-ground missiles and high-powered machine guns, were to secure the skies over London. All of this in addition to flying in not only Bush's own presidential limousine, but in fact his own motorcade. No foreign cars for our President -- only a custom-imported procession of Humvees would do.

The shock and awe inspired by the administration's chutzpah resulted in a resounding succession of no's from British officials. Even under Blair, Britain was loathe to sacrifice cherished rights such as freedom of speech and assembly for the sake of Bush's photo-op. Subsequent negotiation resulted in a diminished security detail of 700 armed Americans and the establishment of a "sanitary" exclusion zone around Bush being agreed to, but not before the editors of Fleet Street had had the chance to howl in laughter and derision: "Who Invited Him?" read a headline in one of the dailies.

Why would Bush foist himself upon a nation and a Prime Minister who would clearly prefer that he stay at home? Beyond the knowledge that he's politically torpedoing Blair, his only high-profile international ally, the "toxic Texan" (as segments of the British press have come to refer to him) can only expect to be treated to a mass wail of protest from the tens of thousands who plan to topple his papier-mache statue Saddam-style in Trafalgar Square. Perhaps never before in the course of human events has a state visit seemed so like an exercise in public humiliation, for both the host and the guest involved.

David B. Livingstone is a political commentator and arts/culture critic.

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