Our Brit Poodle, Off His Leash

By Malcolm Rifkind
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The British have been puzzled about Tony Blair for some time. Americans, particularly the one who lives in the White House, must be beginning to share the same feelings.

Recently the prime minister announced the first major reduction of British troops in Iraq. He chose to do so at precisely the same time that President Bush, his close friend, is trying to convince Congress and the American people of the wisdom of a substantial increase in the U.S. troop commitment to the same country.

Not surprisingly, this has been a gift to Democrats and other critics of the president, and has made a difficult task all the more complicated. What happened to the idea of a friend in need?

The prime minister has, characteristically, tried to minimize the damage. He pointed out that Basra, where the British are based, is quite different than Baghdad. There are no Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflicts, as the region is overwhelmingly Shiite. Al-Qaeda and other international jihadists have made little impact. The bulk of British troops will, in any event, remain at least for another year.

These claims are justified but they conceal as much as they reveal. Basra and the south of Iraq is a serious mess despite the impressive and professional work of British forces over the past three years. The writ of the Iraqi government is weak. The reason there is little sectarian conflict is that most of the Sunni minority have been driven out through ethnic cleansing. The militias in Basra are all-powerful. The two main ones may both be Shiite but they spend most of the time battling each other for power in the region. They have regularly attacked British forces to show their prowess and because of their hostility to the presence of foreign troops. Blair himself told Parliament that British troops would not be leaving Basra in the condition in which they would like.

It is the timing of Blair's announcement of the British withdrawal that is most revealing. He could have delayed it for weeks if his interest had been to help the president. But his own domestic weakness dictated this timetable. As his prime ministership draws to a less-than-illustrious end, he has had to find a way to reassure the British public that his Iraq adventure will indeed end, too. There is now a widespread belief in the United Kingdom that Iraq has been the worst disaster in British foreign policy since 1956, when Britain and France invaded Egypt with Israeli help after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. British voters of all parties tend to agree that the prime minister must shoulder the blame for insisting on British support for the invasion of Iraq.

But in British eyes, the problem is far wider than the merits of the Iraq war. Much of the criticism that Blair has faced has been for the apparent unconditional support he has given Bush. That is not because of any serious anti-Americanism. The British are, traditionally, among the most pro-American groups in the world. They expect their prime ministers to be close to the U.S. president, and that has rarely been controversial.

Blair is, however, accused of being different than his predecessors, from both the Labor and Conservative parties, in appearing to support the White House through hell or high water. There is considerable truth in this charge. Winston Churchill often disagreed with Franklin D. Roosevelt over Soviet Union policy. Harold Wilson declined to send British troops to Vietnam despite Lyndon B. Johnson's repeated requests. John Major and Bill Clinton had severe disagreements over Bosnia.

Even Margaret Thatcher, who was close to Ronald Reagan, did not hesitate to say so publicly when she thought that U.S. policy was unwise. This happened when the United States invaded Grenada without informing Queen Elizabeth II, who happens to be Grenada's head of state. It also occurred when the United States put pressure on Britain not to trade with the Soviets over a proposed gas pipeline in the 1980s. Thatcher, politely but firmly, told Reagan that she would decide with whom Britain would trade.

Blair, in contrast, has been viewed as so loyal to the White House that he is regularly lampooned in the media as Bush's poodle. The charge may be unfair, but it has done him severe political damage in his own Labor Party and with the public.

Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington, has said that Blair has rarely used his relationship with Bush to press for substantial changes in U.S. policy. This was not just true on Iraq. When the president unexpectedly indicated that the United States was willing to support changes in Israel's frontiers to include some of the settlements on the West Bank, Blair announced his own support for the proposal without any discussion in the House of Commons or with Britain's partners in the European Union.

Bringing some of our troops back home has been one of the few welcome statements that he has been able to make on Iraq since the invasion almost four years ago. If it appeared to be at odds with U.S. policy, that will not have done him any harm. Blair will soon be a figure of the past, as he has promised to step down as prime minister by June at the latest. His successor is almost certain to be Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer or finance minister, who has been the second-most-powerful member of the government for the past 10 years.

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