Modest success behind the White House pleasantries
RARELY since we burned down the White House in 1812 has so much hung on the visit of a British politician to Washington.
The context of this vital meeting lies in the Middle East. April has been a cruel month in Iraq: the various insurgent forces have cost the coalition some of its worst casualties since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the 30 June dateline for a handover of sovereignty is looming with no-one entirely clear who will then take charge. This has coincided with the bold move by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to pull out of Gaza while virtually declaring Israel will hold on to large parts of the West Bank indefinitely.
President Bush’s seeming endorsement of Mr Sharon’s strategy earlier this week provoked storms of protest in the Middle East, including among erstwhile American allies such as Egypt. To add fuel to all this political fire, Osama bin Laden popped up this week with an offer to stop murdering innocent Europeans if only we abandoned the United States and Iraq to their fate. Such are the confused messages coming out of the Middle East and the White House that there are many nave people in Europe willing to appease bin Laden as once Hitler was appeased.
As a result, Mr Blair had three major aims in Washington. First, he had to steer Mr Bush gently back in the direction of the United Nations; for only a UN Security Council resolution will give sufficient legitimacy to any interim (and unelected) Iraqi government after 30 June, in order for the latter to organise free elections. Secondly, Mr Blair had to win a clear presidential statement that the Sharon plan did not spell the demise of the so-called road map towards a final Israel-Palestine settlement, which endorses an independent, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state within three years. Without either of these parts of the diplomatic jigsaw, the Middle East cauldron was showing distinct signs of boiling over. Finally, if Mr Blair could achieve some robust diplomatic success, the siren calls of the Islamo-fascists could be shown up for the extortion racket they are.
Fortunately, as Mr Blair’s plane landed, the grey skies that had shrouded Washington all month parted and the sun came out. Reasonable diplomatic success followed. During the Blair-Bush press conference, President Bush made his most positive references to the UN in a while. He made copious references to the necessary role of the UN envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, in helping get international approval of the interim Iraqi government. Equally, Mr Blair’s meeting with the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, seems to have gone some way to persuading the cynical UN bureaucracy that it can no longer pretend that Iraq is an American problem. But these fine words have to be turned into reality. If a new UN resolution endorsing the caretaker government is forthcoming, then a free, sovereign Iraq can emerge on 30 June with elections in January; otherwise, there will be a power vacuum and the Blair-Bush summit will have been in vain.
Progress was also made on the road map. Both Mr Blair and President Bush made repeated references to their continued commitment to the road-map goals and timetable. Mr Bush was also at pains to stress that the Israeli pull-out of Gaza did not prejudice negotiations regarding a final settlement of the boundaries of the new Palestinian state. Again, the proof will be in the execution, but the unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli settlements in Gaza is a hard fact and the biggest concession Israel has made on this issue. Once the usual Arab rhetoric has diminished, it requires a tough US diplomatic offensive in the Middle East to drive this point home and seek a quid pro quo.
THAT said, it was not quite game, set and match to Mr Blair. Once again, he has honourably risked his personal reputation on this side of the Atlantic for gains that will be made elsewhere. If the Blair-Bush summit helps move on the political process in Iraq and Palestine, the world and the Middle East will benefit. But Mr Blair could still end up looking like Mr Bush’s poodle. Worse, the Bush agenda is commanded by the president’s electoral needs. This weekend’s summit decisions could be in next week’s White House wastepaper basket if the diplomatic feelers to the UN fail, or if something disastrous happens in Iraq.
Still, Mr Blair deserves credit for all his efforts. He is nobody’s political doormat, despite what his critics say. It was the Prime Minister, alone of the world’s leading players, who decided single-handedly in 2000 that the new Bush White House could not be left to turn in on itself, as seemed likely at the time. It was Mr Blair, the buddy of Bill Clinton, who took the risk of trying to get close to the Bush administration when it was talking about letting Europe sort out the Balkans’ quagmire on its own and abandoning any hint of "nation building" in the dysfunctional parts of Africa and the Middle East.
That negative agenda was a far cry from yesterday’s summit. Thank Tony Blair for that.
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