Unwelcome Guest

Next week Bush visits Britain, where he's even more unpopular than Blair.

Thu Nov. 13, 2003 3:00 AM EST

President Bush next week visits England, where he'll chum it up with his loyal ally, Tony Blair, and kick back with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He can expect less of a welcome from the British public, though, with massive street protests planned for his stay.

The visit comes during a difficult time for both Bush and Blair. Never keen on going into Iraq, the British people, including members of his party, are furious at their prime minister for having overstated the case for military action. (Unlike the American public, the Brits refuse to drop the WMD issue, and the whiff of cooked intelligence clinging to Blair won't go away.) And the British public takes the view, shared by majorities in most European countries, that Bush is a dangerous fool.

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An opinion poll commissioned by the London Times shows that 60 percent of the British public disapprove of the way Bush has dealt with Iraq. The percentage of people who think going to war was the right thing to do is down from 64 percent last April to 37 percent now.

The timing of this visit is something of a mystery. London's Guardian speculates:

"'It came up as a matter of routine,' says a Foreign Office spokesman, 'all American presidents get them in their first term.' Except Bush's trip can hardly be described as routine. He will be the first US president to come here on a state visit - with all the extra lashings of ceremony and royal red carpet that that term implies. (There was big hoopla for Woodrow Wilson in 1918 but even that, the protocol experts say, did not quite count.)

... So how did it happen? The Foreign Office suggests a call to the palace, who promptly insist this was not their doing. 'This whole visit is being done with advice - with a capital A,' says a palace spokeswoman firmly. The royal family did not do this on their own; government was involved. The two sides cannot even agree on when this wizard idea first surfaced. The Foreign Office says it was settled in June 2002; the palace and US embassy say the first they heard of it was early this year.

All of which makes you wonder if even the hosts are getting cold feet. You can hardly blame them. For who does this trip really benefit? Not Blair, who's getting a headache he could do without. Not the Queen, who has an allergy to political controversy and, given recent events, can hardly be eager to see her already beleaguered institution tarred by association with the 'toxic Texan'.

No, there is only one beneficiary of this visit and it is the Bush White House. With an election campaign looming, they are anxious to deflect the accusation that Bush is isolated. They want to show he has allies and friends around the world and few play better in the US than Tony Blair, whose American ratings put his home numbers in the shade."

And, good friend that he is, Tony Blair wants to keep up Britain's image as America's closest ally. He told London-based American correspondents that he deplored 'resurgent anti-Americanism,' and he said Europeans should use Bush's trip to drop their caricatured view of U.S. policy. The New York Times has Blair pleading with would-be protesters:

"'Try not to believe that myself or President Bush are sort of badly motivated people who want to do the worst, just try and look at it from the perspective that we are taking on and recognize that were it not for the conflict, those people in Iraq would still be under the lash of Saddam and his sons and their henchmen,' [Blair] said.

The British press has never shown much deference toward Blair, and it's not about to make allowances for Bush. No holds barred, the Independent sums up some of the reasons for Bush's unpopularity in Britain:

"It is not only Bush the Chicken-hawk warmonger and promoter-in-chief of the great illusion about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction who they will be denouncing. It is also Bush the ignorant, self-righteous Christian warrior, Bush the smirking executioner and Bush the believer in one law for America and another for everyone else. And, of course, Bush the 'Toxic Texan', an image made flesh by the 'ghost ships' bearing down on Hartlepool, whose US-produced contaminants will find a last resting place on Britain's unpolluted isle.

...And all this done with a certainty ill-befitting a man with scant knowledge of the world's complexities, and a quite scary lack of curiosity about what makes other people and other cultures tick. As the political writer Joe Klein put it in a Time magazine column just before the second Iraq war: 'George W Bush lives at the intersection of faith and inexperience. This is not a reassuring address, especially in a time of trouble.' No more reassuring is the secrecy with which he and his high command operate. Add that to Bush's aversion to press conferences and Republican control of both houses of Congress, and the Bush White House often appears beyond accountability."

Citing security concerns, White House planners have reportedly pressed British authorities to virtually shut down most of central London. The London Metropolitan Police has launched the biggest security operation Britain has ever seen for a visiting Head of State. "We are not so concerned about some anti-war protester throwing rotten fruit at the president. Our worry now is the more dangerous elements who may be here," said a senior Scotland Yard source quoted in the Times.

Some hinted it might not just be security concerns but a desire for favorable media coverage that motivates the U.S. to push through a ban on protests near government quarters, as the Independent reports:

"The Stop The War Coalition said yesterday that it had been told by the police that it would not be allowed to demonstrate in Parliament Square and Whitehall next Thursday - a ban it said it was determined to resist. The coalition says that it has also been told by British officials that American officials want a distance kept between Mr Bush and protesters, for security reasons and to prevent their appearance in the same television shots.

...Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP, said: '[The police] are under pressure from the Americans, and the losers appear to be people of Britain who want to show their opposition to the Iraq war.'"

A spokesperson for the Stop the War Coalition, which is organizing the protests, said: "It is an outrage that the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received will be given the freedom of the streets, while a movement that represents majority opinion is denied the right to protest in the area which is the heart of government." The Stop the War Coalition is expecting between 60 000 and 100 000 people to join an "Unwelcome Bush" march. Other groups are organizing a "schools walk out" to protest "against the Murderer coming to town". The Stop the War Coalition say they plan to erect a statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square and then topple it in the same manner a Saddam Hussein statue was famously toppled by U.S. troops in Baghdad.

London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, a longtime Blair foe known for his leftist views (he glories in the nickname "Red Ken"), is also holding a Peace Reception for prominent opponents of the war and subsequent "occupation" of Iraq, next Wednesday midway through the president's stay. Livingstone has urged protesters to keep within the law "If it is peaceful there will be a contrast between the protesters and the man they are protesting against," he said.

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