Simmering disagreements

Tony Blair is unlikely to be Bush's best buddy in a second term -- unless the president changes course on foreign policy and other sticky issues.

By Simon Tisdall
Published August 31, 2004 2:13PM (EDT)

The crowd at the campaign rally in Annandale, Va., knew exactly what it wanted. As President Bush mounted the podium, the cry went up: "Four more years! Four more years!"

It is a cry that will be heard again and again this week at the Republican Party's convention in New York. But while four more years of Bush seems a terrific idea to the party faithful, the prospect arouses mixed feelings beyond America's shores.

For Britain, in particular, Bush's term in office has proved divisive and occasionally humiliating, especially in respect to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also over issues ranging from climate change and the International Criminal Court to protectionist American steel tariffs.

There can be no doubt that Britain has been a good friend to the U.S. in recent years. Whether the Bush administration has been a good friend to Britain is a different matter altogether.

So would four more years of Bush follow the same pattern? Authors Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, in their new book on the neoconservative hegemonistic tendency, "America Unbound," believe that the president has wrought a permanent foreign policy revolution.

They cite, in particular, his doctrine of preemptive war and regime change, his disdain for the "international community" and his unabashed unilateralism. It is what Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, diplomatically calls a "major experiment in foreign policy."

But another body of U.S. opinion, typified by Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard, holds that recent experience -- not least the chastening lessons of Iraq -- is already pushing Bush back toward a more traditional, consensus-based approach. Nye suggests that a second Bush term would see greater U.S. emphasis on allies and institutions and a search for negotiated, rather than military, solutions in places like North Korea.

Significantly, perhaps, a senior Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, recently called on the administration to "help strengthen global institutions ... Winning the war on terrorism will require a seamless network of relationships," he said. The United Nations, Hagel said, "is more relevant today than it has ever been ... [It] has an essential role to play in post-conflict transitions."

Britain's former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, also believes Bush's actions since 2001 have demonstrated the limitations rather than the attractions of unilateralism. Rather than test this theory further, Cook and others like him would plainly prefer to deal in future with a President John Kerry.

But whether or not Bush has learned his lessons, Britain and Blair must anticipate more sharp-edged problems with U.S. policy if a second Bush term comes to pass.

One simmering area of disagreement concerns the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Blair has repeatedly personally championed the "road map" peace process; reports from Washington suggest that Bush has effectively abandoned it. This is a row just waiting to happen.

Iran remains a big worry. While the potential for a transatlantic rift can be exaggerated, given London's disappointment at Tehran's perceived recent backward steps, U.S. saber rattling echoes jarringly down Whitehall's corridors.

Syria and Cuba reveal clearer differences in approach. Bush's controversial Latin America special envoy, Otto Reich, has been quietly cooking up a "transition strategy" for a post-Castro Cuba, ignoring the fact that Fidel Castro is still very much around.

Threatening behavior toward Damascus and Havana may be an unsavory feature of a second Bush term. Meanwhile, further American "war on terror" excesses and its abuses of human rights and judicial processes could prove politically explosive in London.

Bush's refusal to support multilateral arms control and counterproliferation treaties, particularly dismaying to Britain, would be another ongoing source of friction. There is a high embarrassment factor, too, in Bush's insistence on pursuing "son of Star Wars" missile defenses, including upgraded British facilities.

Given the enduring importance to the U.S. of cheap foreign oil, as highlighted by the presidential campaign, Blair's efforts to resuscitate the Kyoto pact may continue to struggle. Nor is another British priority -- meeting the U.N.'s millennium development goals and raising overall foreign aid -- likely to receive much bottom-line encouragement.

It may be that a second-term Bush will be a changed man. Failing that admittedly optimistic scenario, it may be that Blair will be able to paper over any difficulties and disappointments, as hitherto, and so maintain his White House best-buddy routine.

That assumes, of course, that Blair will also be granted the favor of four more years.

Simon Tisdall

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