With British Prime Minister Tony Blair on his political last legs and desperately seeking to shore up his legacy for history's sake, George W. Bush headed into the last stages of his own lame-duck presidency, and both sinking beneath waves of public unpopularity, the ties that have bound their two nations for nearly seventy years are under stress as perhaps never before. A drastic rethink of the "special relationship" may soon be in order, if it is not already past due.
The best pals act between Bush and Blair that at its peak saw the two link arms to march their countries into war against Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi dictatorship barely four years ago has grown noticeably frigid as their mutual international woes pile up week by week, their often miscalculated diplomatic initiatives flounder and the body bags fill up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Bush-Blair "summits" seem to have all but dried up, there are few if any signs these days of their once cozy transatlantic telephone chats, and the leaders of the once formidable alliance appear to be careening off in different directions at virtually every scene switch on the world stage.
The Anglo-American "special summit" that Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt forged in the furnace of World War II is now consigned to history, but neither George Bush nor Tony Blair seems especially bothered. On at least three major issues the prime minister and the president are sharply divided. Although Blair is possibly still smarting from the sobriquet ("Bush's poodle") that has dogged him since the opening dawn of gunfire in Iraq, he is more likely concerned by a combination of his place in history and the opinion-poll proof of how disliked he has become, prompting Blair to strike out on his own.
The prime minister has irked the Bush Administration by suggesting that Britain might be prepared to do business with the Islamic militant group Hamas after it agreed to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a Palestinian government of national unity.
"It's far easier to deal with the situation in Palestine if there is a national unity government", Blair said ahead of his own meeting in London with Abbas. "I hope we can make progress, including even with the more sensible elements of Hamas."
The trouble is, Washington has branded the political party and group a terrorist organization. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice griped that her own efforts to get some sort of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had "been made more complicated by the unity government." Hamas steadfastly rejects any recognition of Israel, an issue that Rice has insisted is "critically important." Clearly, Rice doesn't expect to find within the Islamic group the "more sensible elements" upon which Blair pins his, and his nation's, own hopes for a meaningful peace in this particular corner of the Middle East.
And, of course, Britain and the United States have gone distinctly out of sync over manning levels in Iraq. With evidently little discussion about it with Washington, Blair has announced the first major withdrawal of British forces from that troubled country: some 1,600 troops by the summer, perhaps as many as 3,000 by the year's end.
While British soldiers and airmen and women catch planes and ship out, Bush is ordering another 21,500 U.S. troops into Iraq. As one Middle East analyst put it, certainly there is "a hint of dissonance in the air." Surely, there was an audible "twang of discord", added the analyst, in the comment by Washington's ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad: "It's clear what our preference would be-the longer we stay together, the better."
Tony Blair has now also pulled at least part of a rug out from under Bush on yet another super-sensitive issue: Iran. In regards to Tehran's headlong dash to build nuclear weapons via thousands of underground centrifuges that are expected to be all but ready to spin out weapons-grade uranium sometime this year, some hardliners in Washington favor a military strike targeting facilities.
The British prime minister, so long in lockstep with the hawks of Washington, has broken ranks with a resounding "no." Says Blair: "I can't think that it would be right to take military action against Iran. . . . What is important is to pursue the political, diplomatic channel. I think it is the only way that we are going to get a sensible solution to the Iranian issue."
There are reasons aplenty for Blair's sudden volte-face in dealing with-or, as now seems the case, not dealing with-Washington, given some of its hard-line policies in the Middle East. For example, Britain is noticeably less worried about Hamas and the Israeli issue than is the United States, with its heavy Jewish population centers. To the east, Iraq already has played a key role in unseating Blair from his vaulted position of one the most popular prime ministers in British history when he came to power in 1997, to the depths, ten years later, of being regarded as one of the worst prime ministers of all time. Under considerable pressure he has been forced to announce he will be stepping down as prime minister (and almost certainly any and all elective politics in general). His resignation is expected this summer. Far too late, he has now bought into the growing demand across the land to start bringing the troops home.
Given the disaster-cum-tragedy that is the overwhelmingly predominant British view of Iraq, any remotely similar role in Iran, nuclear weapons or no, would almost certainly be a military adventure too far for this embattled prime minister.
In broader terms, the prime minister's legacy prospects are not encouraging: a national health service that is more than $120 billion in debt; a transportation network that has been described as the worst in Europe; an ongoing scandal over the alleged sale of peerages in exchange for political favors; and a wide-open immigration policy that has seen hundreds of thousands of illegal, and often criminal, aliens roaming the nation's cities and towns.
Doubtless if he can soften Britain's involvement in the various quagmires that are the Middle East, Blair might hope history-and his own people-will view him a bit more kindly. Putting distance between himself and George Bush could look better on the legacy resume.
What, in the process, has taken a beating is the Anglo-American "special relationship" of such long standing, and perhaps what's needed now is an agonizing reappraisal of the whole business. As veteran British journalist and political analyst Jonathan Fenby suggests, "one of the prime tasks for Britain's next prime minister-and for whoever fills the vacuum at the Foreign Office-will be to redefine Britain's relationship with the United States." He added, "Given the state of British public opinion after the disastrous effect of Iraq and Bush on the country's view of America, it will be no easy task, even if it is facilitated by impending regime change in Washington."
Al Webb is a freelance journalist based in Britain and a veteran foreign correspondent. He served as chief Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, for US News & World Report magazine and with United Press International as a combat correspondent in Vietnam, bureau manager at United Nations headquarters in New York, chief Middle East correspondent based in Beirut, news editor based in Hong Kong for the Asian Division, and news editor for European-Middle East-Africa Division based in London.