Demonstrations make good television pictures and we shall see a lot of them on our screen during U.S. President George Bush’s state visit to Britain, which begins tomorrow. They will make the U.S. Secret Service twitchy but will actually be as relevant as Morris Dancers or other of Britain’s traditional rituals.
The demonstrators will include all the usual suspects. There will be the Stop The War Coalition led by a leading British Communist and supported by Saddam Hussein’s buddy and booster, the member of Parliament George Galloway. There will be veterans of the conferences in Seattle, Genoa and anywhere else which offers the prospect of a punch-up with the police. London’s socialist mayor, “Red Ken” Livingstone, will host an anti-War and anti-Bush tea-party. No doubt Mad Hatters will be specially welcome.
One thing is certain: you would never catch any of this bunch demonstrating against Saddam Hussein. Indeed the few anti-Saddam placards which appeared at earlier Stop The War marches were promptly torn down on the instructions of the organizers. They prefer to march under the banner of double standards. So forget the demonstrations.
It’s harder, however, to ignore the opinion polls. They show a much wider unease in British public opinion about President Bush, his administration, his policies and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s close association with him. This is worrying in a country which traditionally prides itself on being America’s closest ally. Mr. Blair’s support for George Bush and for the war in Iraq may make him popular in the United States, but it is costing him politically at home in Britain.
One can just dismiss this unease as a passing phase linked to the current difficulties in Iraq. President Bush has bruised some sensitive souls with rhetoric about the war on terrorism which owes more to John Wayne than to Talleyrand and has refused to be tied down by Lilliputians in the United Nations. But it’s nothing that time and eventual success in Iraq won’t heal. I would like to think it’s no more than that. But the malaise appears more deep-seated and the president would be wise to consider what he can do to assuage it during his visit. No country is so powerful that it doesn’t need friends.
Some of the criticisms expressed about President Bush are just frivolous or spiteful and can be disregarded. This applies above all to the condescension of the chattering classes towards him. It is the worst sort of English snobbery and matches the same people’s conviction that President Ronald Reagan was a clueless dolt. At least that caricature has been blown out of the water by the recent publication of his letters which provide evidence of a shrewd and well-informed mind.
Then there are those who find Mr. Bush a trifle scary, a modern day Barry Goldwater or Curtis LeMay who wants to zap America’s enemies first and ask questions only afterwards. The evidence does not support such a charge against the president. The United States did not rush to war even under the horrendous provocation of 9/11, and it has been restrained and proportionate in the amount of force it has deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed he is criticized for not having enough troops in Iraq. The president is no Dr. Strangelove as some of his detractors would have us believe.
One unusual feature of current anti-Americanism or at least anti-Bushism in Britain is its prevalence in the upper reaches of the foreign policy and military establishment, the bien pensants and the smart dinner party set. It stems from resentment at America’s extraordinary military power which gives the president a freer hand than in the past to ignore the accumulated wisdom of the British Foreign Office (or for that matter his own State Department) and act without the concurrence and seal of approval of those accustomed to be consulted. This sense of being down-graded was never more acute than when Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reminded us brutally that America did not actually need Britain in Iraq. It leads many of our senior officials to question openly what good the vaunted special relationship with the U.S. does us anyway, if an American President no longer wants to listen to us, and to campaign for our efforts and energies to be directed more towards a common European foreign and defence policy.
This defeatism is not justified, as Prime Minister Tony Blair recognizes and Margaret Thatcher did before him. Britain’s voice is still influential whether in persuading President Bush to try to work through the United Nations over Iraq, or to embark on a fresh though sadly not sustained effort to re-launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We count for more than we suppose, and the caricature of the British poodle which simply jumps to an American President’s commands is belied by the fierce and fiery exchanges which go on behind the façade of the special relationship. As someone who used to be guardian of the 10 Downing Street-White House hotline, I can testify to the vigor of those exchanges even at the height of the Thatcher-Reagan love-in.
The heart of the problem is that many people in Britain feel their destiny is in the hands of an untrammelled U.S., yet President Bush has not succeeded in conveying his overall strategic vision, whether in going to war in Iraq or in discarding such icons as the Kyoto Protocol on the Environment, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Court of Justice or a host of other treasured diplomatic tomb-stones each with its band of ardent supporters. It’s the sense of being swept along by an alien force that we cannot control or greatly influence is unsettling and causes resentment.
This is the problem which President Bush can and should address during his visit. In particular the president needs to chart a new course on Iraq which will carry more conviction and be more attainable. There must be no question of cutting and running: even the severest critics of the president’s policy accept that would be terminally damaging to America’s world role. But we need a clearer vision of what is in practice attainable in Iraq and how it can be achieved, and of how we can successfully defeat the terrorists and suicide bombers without becoming embroiled in an interminable clash of civilizations with the Muslim world. It is going to require us to redefine our objectives even if it means, as the Bush administration is already envisioning, lowering our sights somewhat and handing over authority more rapidly to a less than fully democratic provisional government. It will also mean reconstituting some of the institutions–the army and parts of the intelligence of apparatus–of the previous Iraqi state, shorn of their most vicious Baathist agents.
So seize the opportunity, Mr. President, to win over the doubters and make them see that you have a clear vision of the way ahead in Iraq with an exit at the end. If you don’t do that, there are plenty of sleek Eurocrats peddling the snake-oil of a common foreign policy whose ultimate aim is to get the United States out of Europe. Prime Minister Tony Blair responded to this danger last week in his annual review of Britain’s foreign policy at the Lord Mayor’s banquet with the warning: “if Europe were to let anti-Americanism define its foreign policy, it would be a disaster”. It’s a disaster you need to help us avoid, Mr. President, and your welcome visit to our country gives you a rare chance to do so.