Love-Hate

In London, Bush gains and Blair loses. Some "special relationship."

Thu Nov. 20, 2003 1:00 AM PST

Hugh Grant, the British actor who plays a Tony Blair-esque prime minister in the new film, "Love Actually," summed up what a large section of Brits think about the "special relationship" between their P.M. and the American president. Asked to define love, Grant called it "loving someone no matter what their faults in a blind and unconditional way, such as the love Tony Blair has for George Bush."

That love was on full display this week as Blair was forced, again and again, to defend George Bush's visit to England, insisting that the trip (which he must privately be cursing) was wholly appropiate and "well-timed." Many Brits think otherwise. Bush has never been popular in Britain, playing as he does to the (slightly self-aggrandizing) British stereotype of the American cowboy. And that was before the war in Iraq, which about 50 percent of British people think was a mistake of historic proportions, according to a recent London Times poll.

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Blair remains unapologetic about the war, which he seems genuinely to have believed in; and for months he's been taking a beating in parliament and from the British press, an onslaught many thought he wouldn't survive. So, he's got to be confident that if he's lasted this long, he's not going to be undone by Bush's visit; but you know he's counting the hours till the American president gets back on the plane.

The flap surrounding the visit, as well as keeping the conversation, much to Blair's annoyance, on Iraq, serves to highlight the essential asymmetry in the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain. While Bush can use Britain and its royal family as a spectacular backdrop for a giant P.R. campaign for his re-election campaign, showing that he didn't stand alone against Iraq, Blair himself has little to gain from the visit -- and much to lose.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to greet Bush on Thursday. The London Guardian thinks that Bush deserves that display of rage, but it also calls on the British people to get rid of Blair:

"…if Bush's visit provides the motivation for the demonstrations it would be a mistake if it also monopolised their message. For to be effective the protests should not mark a reflexive response to the arrival of an unpopular foreign dignitary, but reflect an expression of the popular will that has been forced on to the streets because our own parliament's inability to adequately represent us.

If the leader who is coming is a problem, the leader who invited him is no less so. As the man who led the charge to war Bush is a worthy target of our ire. As the man who followed him and in so doing lent the war what little legitimacy it ever had, Blair is even more so.

We did not elect Bush (it is a moot point whether anybody did) and can do little about him but hope that the Democrats get it together to beat him next year. We did elect Blair, and if these demonstrations are going to be about anything more than ire, then it is our responsibility to get rid of him."

The visit was planned before the Iraq war, in happier times for both men, and there was never any realistic question of canceling it. George Bush declared that the British and American peoples were united in an "alliance of values" that remained "very strong". But British public opinion regards Blair's closeness to George Bush as bad for Britain according to a poll in the London Times last week. Hosting one of the most disliked U.S. presidents in British memory -- the Times poll has 59 percent of respondents saying that America's standing in the world has diminished under Bush's presidency -- seems like the last thing Blair needs right now.

AlterNet quips that while Bush is off to England, Blair goes to hell:

"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 is further from crunch-time than Bush -- British elections are at least 18 months off. And so far he has managed to survive the war with Iraq, including the intelligence blunders that led to it. But still, Bush's visit is not likely to bring up much positive sentiment for Blair in Britain. Blair will be under intense pressure to come away from Thursday's "substantive talks" with something to show for his troubles -- progess,  say on the question of the nine British detainees held in Guantanamo (Colin Powell hinted that the U.S. is prepared to "compromise" on this), or on the issue of U.S. tariffs on European steel. 

Interestingly, while Blair is desperately continuing to grin through Bush's visit, Blair's wife, Cherie, brushed aside diplomatic protocol and attacked the current U.S. administration for its unyielding refusal to join the International Criminal Court. Speaking at a conference in Washington on the eve of the Bush visit, Cherie Blair said that it was "inconceivable" that the United States would not allow prosecution of its own nationals accused of war crimes abroad.

It remains to be seen if Tony Blair will go so far as to label his own wife "anti-American", as he has the expected crowd of protesters. Blair denounced "resurgent anti-Americanism" and called on Europeans to use Mr. Bush's trip to drop their caricatured view of United States policy. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw echoed his remarks last week and described criticism of George W Bush's state visit to Britain as "fashionable anti-Americanism". Much of the British press has devoted column space to defending the position of protesters, insisting that Brits are not anti-American, they just distrust its current president.

Here's the Guardian again:

"That charge still rankles with many of us who are constantly accused of a negative knee-jerk response to all things American. Such misunderstanding is hardly surprising when the spin doctors continue to distort the truth.

…The process was extended to embrace Israel, whereby criticism of the aggressively rightwing government of Ariel Sharon was portrayed as anti-Israeli, or, shamefully, as anti-semitic.

Such propaganda tactics are, of course, not new, but have reached new depths in the repeated transposition of America for George Bush. By this means, reasoned, responsible and targeted criticism of the president's policies is misrepresented, for political ends, as an emotional reaction to America itself.

...No, Mr Blair, it is not knee-jerk anti-Americanism which holds sway in the UK. It is the reaction of one old friend to another when the latter is acting wholly unreasonably and unacceptably. In such circumstances, that old friend needs to be reminded of his responsibilities to himself and to others."

It is doubtful if Blair will even mention some of the more contentious issues between him and president Bush, such as the matter of U.S. steel tariffs and the nine British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay - let alone remind his old friend of his responsibilities.

It is these hypocritical inconsistencies of applying one set of rules to the U.S. and another to the world, that inspires the London correspondent of Outlookindia.com to write that it is Bush himself who is the true 'anti-American':

"Those of us who oppose George Bush's policies are often accused of being 'anti-American'. It's an odd charge. No one suggests that people who don't like Tony Blair are 'anti-British'. It seems to be an attempt to discredit us by suggesting that we are motivated not by reasonable political objections, but by an old and visceral contempt for an 'upstart nation'. But perhaps the gravest of the charges we can lay against George Bush is that he is himself an anti-American. His style of government stands at odds with everything we were led to believe the United States of America represents."

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