Blair’s last mission must be to keep America close

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 02/04/06):

Trying to manage a political crisis from 12,000 miles away is a nightmare. Tony Blair, who dislikes flying, must have arrived in Melbourne jetlagged. The time difference is bewildering. Travelling on to New Zealand and Indonesia he will have sacrificed valuable sleeping time to take calls from anxious advisers in London. It is difficult to gauge the mood in Britain unless you can leaf through the press. Reading the stories on the internet is just not the same as seeing the headlines spread out across the breakfast table.

Perhaps on the car journey from his meeting at the presidential palace to an Indonesian school the prime minister was told that the Metropolitan police want to interview him about loans for peerages. He will have received an exasperated report about John Prescott who, when substituting for Blair at prime minister’s questions, foolishly implied that Blair had told him the date when he will resign. Blair will have heard that Ashok Kumar MP, a parliamentary private secretary, has called for him to make way for Gordon Brown and that Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip, has let the rebel get away with it.

When I was a minister during foreign trips I was sometimes close to panic. I could not get a clear picture of the problem at home yet events were slipping out of control. Blair must have been torn between returning to London and wishing he could remain for ever in the soothing, artificial world of diplomacy.

It was not a good time for him to be away. While he was gone the political class, formed of politicians and commentators, moved close to a consensus that Blair’s end could not long be postponed.

Deep Throat, the mole who steered Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist, through the Watergate scandal, advised him to follow the money. The four men whose nominations to the Lords were blocked after they lent the Labour party cash have had their names dragged through the mire. They are probably resentful, they have little experience of handling the intense media pressure to which they are being subjected and now the police want their letters and e-mails. The Westminster village expects some new nastiness to pop out of the loans for peerages caper.

Condoleezza Rice’s bizarre visit to Liverpool and Blackburn brings Blair some welcome distraction from his problems. But that is to understate its importance. For while we focus on the dying embers of one man’s career, there are big forces at work in international politics whose repercussions may still be felt when Blair is but a name in the history books. The prime minister’s speech in Australia on foreign policy was widely regarded as a diversionary tactic and ignored.

But even now Blair is worth hearing. For the time being he is our leader and one of the world’s longest serving statesmen.

Blair worries that America will disengage from the issues that most concern Britain. He joined President Bush in the war on Iraq not because he feared weapons of mass destruction or because he wanted to liberate the Iraqis from the tyrant Saddam Hussein, but rather because he believed unshakably that Britain had to stand alongside America. We owed it to the Americans to go with them, he argued correctly, because they had guaranteed our security in the post-war period, because we shared values and because whenever Britain and America go in separate ways it is disastrous for us.

However much the loans scandal may have caused us to question Blair’s integrity, his belief in the British-American alliance is sincere. It is the solid conviction on which his political career and place in history have been shipwrecked.

Maintaining the alliance is even tougher since Iraq. Anti-Americanism has become a centrist political position even in Britain. Campaigners on a range of subjects from fair trade to global warming use their issue to bash the United States. Alan Johnson, a cabinet minister, last week made a strongly worded attack on US protectionism. Even within the British Army and the Foreign Office there is widespread disdain for the Americans’ failures in Iraq.

Some of Bush’s policies have called into question whether Britain and America share values as closely as we thought. US forces’ attitude to Iraqis, the people they went to liberate, borders on racism. The tormenting of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison sacrificed the alliance’s moral high ground. The Bush administration may legitimately claim that terrorist fighters should be treated as prisoners of war, but in that case why not incarcerate them in the United States where they would enjoy the protection of the Supreme Court, rather than in Guantanamo Bay outside its jurisdiction? The practice of extraordinary rendition is a device to deprive detainees of the rights on which the United States is founded. In her Blackburn speech Rice defended America on those points, but not convincingly.

Bush’s mission to bring democracy to the Muslim world provided America and Britain with a noble common purpose and Rice did her best in Blackburn to keep that banner aloft. But it must be doubtful whether Bush feels quite so keen on spreading democracy now, given that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in Iran and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. Is he really going to risk forcing political upheaval onto his oil-rich allies in Saudi Arabia? He may find that in Iraq the emergence of a less-than-democratic strongman is required to provide enough stability for US troops to go home.

On whatever terms, the day is coming when America and Britain will withdraw from Iraq and then the thickest ties between us will be ended. Another joint military action looks unlikely in the near future.

If energy security is a determinant of US foreign policy, then it will be for Britain, too. Hydrocarbon production from the North Sea is in sharp decline. We will need to look for new supplies from Europe and even north Africa. The flow of gas from our continental partners has proved unreliable and prices have risen sharply. Britain should be concerned at how Russia turned off the taps against Ukraine. We will need to devote much greater diplomatic efforts towards our south and east, diverting our attention from America. The US, meanwhile, will become less concerned with Europe and increasingly fixated with China.

In the three years since Baghdad fell, Britain has once more felt the pull of the European magnet. Even if the French eat cheese, the British do not see them as surrender monkeys. President Chirac was a useful ally in Bosnia and his insistence on a United Nations mandate for the Iraq war was not necessarily dishonourable. Many British diplomats agreed that it was a legal requirement. Blair has in fact strengthened Britain’s military links with France while Nato, the alliance that links Europe and America, has withered.

Under Blair and Brown, Britain has been substantially Europeanised. For example, as an explicit policy, levels of public spending on health have been driven towards the average European Union level. Britain has legislated to reduce working hours and extend maternity and paternity pay in line with the European model. The government gave the European convention on human rights legal standing in Britain. On the same day last week French and British workers went on strike, linked by a defining European view that the state should protect them against the big bad world.

The division between old and new Europe has become more blurred. Blair lost his Spanish ally Jose Maria Aznar at the elections two years ago. Silvio Berlusconi is unlikely to survive the coming poll in Italy. Brown, who has never stuck out his neck on Iraq, will soon replace Blair.

The prime minister is right to be concerned about America and Europe moving apart. None of the world’s great problems can be ameliorated without America’s engagement. Even today, Europe’s security rests on an American guarantee.

The catastrophe in Iraq has had one fortunate consequence: US foreign policy making has transferred back to the State Department away from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Over Iran, for example, Rice apparently puts her trust in diplomacy and multilateralism. Her Lancashire visit cannot for long take our eye off Blair’s career crisis. But she might help to restore British acceptance of our transatlantic alliance.