The Less-Than-Special Bush/Blair Relationship

George Bush's visit to Britain spoke volumes about the lopsided Special Relationship between Washington and London -- and none of it spelled good news for his comrade-in-arms Tony Blair.

Apart from his eloquent praise for "one of the great alliances of mankind," Bush offered little more than doublespeak as usual. Speaking at the Royal Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, he declaimed, "We're sometimes faulted for a naive faith that liberty can change the world. If that's an error it began with reading too much John Locke and Adam Smith."

Of course, it's more than a little ironic that a president who boasts that he does not read newspapers, should claim to have even opened the covers of any of their books, let alone read "too much" of them.

In similar vein, Bush responded to the 100,000 protesters gathered in the streets of London by celebrating the freedom to demonstrate, a right now shared, he noted, by both London and Baghdad. "Freedom is beautiful," he said, adding he was happy to be in a country where people were allowed to speak their minds freely. "All I know is that people in Baghdad weren't allowed to do this until recent history."

Never mind that in Iraq, panicky U.S. forces have shown a disturbing tendency to shoot demonstrators on sight. As it is, the British public can thank Bush for the rare sight of gun-toting bobbies, forced to take up arms to soothe White House paranoia.

"No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found," Bush declared. It explains his continuing refusal to hand over, or guarantee due process to, the British citizens that London maintains are being held illegally in Guantanamo. Blair told reporters in faux confidence, "It will be resolved at some point or other. It will be resolved soon." But his special friend Bush remained determinedly noncommittal, insisting that "justice is being done, they're being treated in a humane fashion."

And, of course, we can assess the sincerity of Bush's attachment to free trade, not to mention his gratitude to Tony Blair, in his refusal to lift the tariffs on British Steel that the WTO has ruled against, although, as he said, the Prime Minister had spoken to him about it at least three times. Indeed, even as the president celebrated the virtues of free trade, the U.S. government has imposed quotas on Chinese textiles. The memory-challenged conservative British press columnists may not have observed Dubya's distinction between doing and dictating, but the invisible hand of the market was paying close attention. The dollar plunged to its lowest ever against the Euro and foreigners are unloading U.S. bonds as if they were Confederate banknotes.

Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister during the Vietnam War, fought off tremendous economic pressure from LBJ and resisted any attempts to commit British forces to Vietnam. One reason was that the streets of London were already filled with protestors against the Americans being in Vietnam, let alone the British joining them. Blair, on the other hand, has been more than willing to alienate his core constituency, so in some sense we have to admire him. The British Prime Minister gets nothing out of this extra-special relationship in the political realm but grief. His country gets few economic or diplomatic benefits either.

But when you compare the Bush-Blair marriage with the truly Special Relationship between Ariel Sharon and George Bush, the reasons for British ire become clear. Sharon tweaks Dubya's nose at regular intervals, making it plain to Israeli audiences at least, that as far as he is concerned, he is the tail wagging the Bushy dog. No wonder the British are angry. Talk about being taken for granted. On the face of it, they would get more returns from bombing their neighbors than putting up Bush in the Buckingham Palace and watch Blair, unrewarded, and unheeded, fawn over George II.

Polls show that the British are not anti-American but anti-Bush. The British Labour Party can take much of the blame or credit for establishing the NATO treaty. In the face of developing American post-war isolationism, exhausted from the Second World War, the Labour Foreign Minister Ernie Bevan wanted to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." More recently, the British public was quite prepared to send soldiers to Afghanistan after Sept.11, and even to Iraq as long as the war was conducted under the aegis of the United Nations.

If nothing else, the presidential visit has made the British public's attitude toward the Bush administration hard to ignore. Let's just say that if Britain ever formalizes the special relationship and becomes the 51st state, you can be sure that George W. Bush would not win its electoral votes, hanging chads or not.

Ian Williams is the Nation's UN correspondent. He writes on international affairs for AlterNet, Foreign Policy in Focus and In These Times.


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