It’s good to be a poodle

By Andrew Sullivan (THE TIMES, 24/06/07):

The life of a poodle is often underrated. As dogs go, many enjoy the most pampered of existences and are smart enough to do the most intellectually demanding of tasks.

Poodle owners are often passionate about their pets, catering to their every whim, manipulated by their guile and tolerating their sometimes snippy relationships with other dogs. In many cases – and this is not restricted to poodles, of course – it’s hard to tell, after a while, who controls whom. The master routinely finds his days wrapped around catering for the poodle: walking it, grooming it, pandering to it. If the tail often wags the dog, the dog can also wag the human. And often does.

I’ve never understood, in this respect, why calling a British prime minister a poodle of the president of the United States is therefore always to the detriment of the Brit. Most postwar British prime ministers have intuitively understood this, however strongly their publics have sometimes balked. The global power of a British premier is nowhere near that of an American president, but the Brits’ leverage over such power is arguably greater than any other country’s – precisely because of their treasured, special, pampered poodle status.

Any number of Europeans would have loved to have had Margaret Thatcher’s direct line to the White House in the Reagan years, or Macmillan’s in the Kennedy years. De Gaulle, of course, was insanely jealous. Labour prime ministers have been no exception: Wilson was an avid Atlanticist and Blair has made Thatcher seem positively sceptical towards American power.

Recall Thatcher’s horrified response to what she saw as a breach of international law in the seizure of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, or her opposition to Reagan’s attack on nuclear deterrence theory at Reykjavik – and compare it with Tony Blair’s take on international law with respect to Iraq. Britain’s leaders – from Thatcher to Blair – do not seem to be moving away from the American orbit, but more firmly into it.

In this respect, the idea of Blair becoming the Bush administration’s point man for the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a new level of integration in the special relationship. I can’t think of another example anywhere of a foreign, former prime minister subsequently becoming, de facto, a member of a US administration.

Yes, Blair would formally represent the “quartet” of international powers. But everyone knows that the US is the truly responsible party, and that the job is Bush’s to appoint or veto. Everyone also knows that Blair would be unable to achieve anything without close White House support and consultation. He’s essentially headed to join the cabinet of a foreign country.

No, Blair is not becoming a US secretary of state. But neither, alas, is Condoleezza Rice. In the struggle for mastery of American foreign policy in the Bush administration, Rice has long been beleaguered by Dick Cheney, the vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, as defence secretary.

North Korea policy in effect has been delegated to Christopher Hill of the State Department. Iraq and Iran policy – along with the detention, rendition and torture question – is still dominated by the Cheney cabal. Bob Gates, the new defence secretary, has helped reduce the monopoly of influence Cheney has had in the Pentagon. But General David Petraeus, for all his bipartisan appeal and background, is there to enforce Cheney’s policy in Iraq, not the Democrats’. And Rice is still struggling to shift the Bush administration out of its bunker and into a more mature and subtle diplomacy with the international community.

In the view of some, Blair’s addition to the team might be the tipping point in favour of Rice. Ignoring the Israel-Palestinian question has, after all, been central to the Bush administration’s Middle East policy for six years. Blair has long argued against this, and lost. But his near-pathological loyalty over the bungled Iraq occupation – a loyalty apparently only deepened by the Bush administration’s refusal to take any advice he ever gave – has given him the essential quality Bush demands in anyone he relies on.

And so he may take his place on the Rice-Gates side of the seesaw and try to tip the balance. He may be part of a new strategy that shuts Guantanamo Bay, reenergises the Middle East “peace process”, deals with Iran through tighter sanctions, and pushes for gradual redeployment in Iraq under the banner of Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy.

Or maybe not. A more jaundiced view does not see Blair’s possible appointment as a sign of anything but a sop to Blair’s ego and a clever device by Bush to give himself political cover in his final 18 months as he tries to step up and prolong the war in Iraq.

The Israel-Palestine problem is not exactly at a fruitful juncture, after all. The Palestinians are in a civil war; jihadism is increasingly replacing Palestinian nationalism as the reigning ideology in Gaza and the West Bank. Shi’ite and Sunni powers are both vying to influence the internal Palestinian conflict; and Arab-Muslim hatred of Israel has rarely been more intense.

Blair’s job is arguably a hopeless one. Think of dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians as the American equivalent of the British government’s historic task in dealing with the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles. At best, thankless; at worst, a waste of time. Bush is asking Blair to become his equivalent of a Northern Ireland secretary.

Domestically, Blair would also be a weapon for the Republicans to use against the Democrats. See – we’re back to diplomacy, the Bush Republicans could say (while doing all they can to prevent a funding cut-off for the war in Iraq). Blair’s support for the Iraq war was critical in persuading many centrist Democrats, especially at the elite level, to support the war in 2003. Coopting Blair now would give the Republicans extra insurance against Democratic attacks on Bush’s foreign policy in the next election campaign. I wonder, for example, if Blair has consulted the Clintons on this possible job offer. I can’t believe they’d want him to take it.

Blair, of course, sees the job as a kind of nicotine patch for power withdrawal. The glamour! The sense of importance! Peace on earth! Whatever admiration he might lose from the liberal part of the American domestic scene would be more than made up by increased Republican fervour.

If you doubt how lucrative that can be in terms of speaking fees, look at how much Rudy Giuliani has raked in by exploiting 9/11 for the past five years. He routinely got six-figure sums for a single speech – and has tens of millions to show for it. You can almost picture Cherie drooling over the potential financial bonanza.

But what makes this perfect for Blair is the combination of almost certain failure, the patina of altruism and a sense of global self-importance. You can surely see the appeal. A former British prime minister with the authority to negotiate and settle a central dispute in the Levant? Think of it as Suez’s revenge.

And that’s why, for all the pitfalls of such an appointment, it’s hard to see why it would be bad for Britain, or bad for Gordon Brown. It gets Blair out of the way and makes Britain seem more important on the world stage. Poodling is a much more powerful tool in global power politics than preening like the French or pouting like the Russians.

Nobody should underestimate the leverage of a little island attached to a continental hyper-power. Last week, for example, Fred Thompson, the new frontrunner for the Republican nomination, tried to appeal to his party’s conservative base by going to London. London? The man is from Tennessee, trying to appeal to fellow Southerners. Why on earth would he go to Europe? He went because in the slough of despond in which American conservatism now finds itself, no living Republican can bestow any sort of legitimacy on an untested candidate.

So Thompson chose to bathe himself in the aura of Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham who used to represent Finchley in parliament. An elderly British lady has the power and image to shift perceptions in the US Republican party at the high water mark of American global power.

Some poodle. Some leash.