“Bush resigns” read the shocking banner flashed last week by CNN. But it turns out to have been a simple gaffe. They meant to write “Blair resigns.” But how to explain the confusion? In the minds of millions around the world, Bush and Blair are an inextricable pair – but no one views their strange relationship as a partnership of equals, as the modern equal of Roosevelt and Churchill. Rather, Blair is viewed as Bush’s toady, or, as dozens of British friends tell me, his “poodle.” Today both stand in the public opinion polls at 28 percent support, both are reviled for their conduct of war in Iraq, which is viewed by all (except the vacuous chattering classes who dominate the American airwaves) as one of the gravest foreign policy fiascos of the modern age.
In Blair’s case at least this assessment seems more than a little harsh. His decade-long administration has brought about a remarkable resurgence of Britain as a center of financial and professional activity in the world. He nudged Northern Ireland to a process of peaceful engagement that seemed, only ten years ago, an impossibility.
No, Blair’s problems boil down to one thing: his reflexive commitment to support Bush’s foreign policy initiatives. Britons of all political stripes now wish he had been more detached and critical.
With Blair’s endorsement of his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, to succeed him, Britain and the Atlantic Alliance will enter into a new phase. Brown will have only a short time to establish himself before new elections come, and he faces the obvious challenge of being Labour’s equivalent of John Major – the figure who succeeded Margaret Thatcher, only to sink in a staggering electoral defeat that brought the New Labour to power.
To address the Labour Party’s public support deficit and offset the resurgent Tory Party, Brown will need to rethink his relationship with Bush. Being labeled a “poodle” would be a career-ender.
Papers in Britain are already heavily engaged with this topic. The transition is being probed on one issue above others: what does it mean for relations with the White House? In the conservative Daily Telegraph we read some preparation. Brown touts his pro-American credentials:
As a self-confessed admirer of all things American, Gordon Brown is unlikely to repeat the mistake. Quite apart from the fact that he likes to take his annual vacation at Cape Cod, Brown has established ties with the American political establishment, albeit of the Democrat variety. Brown was a great admirer of the slick political operation that provided Bill Clinton with two impressive presidential election victories, and key Clinton aides, such as James Carville, were deeply involved in the mid-1990s in the creation of the New Labour spin machine that brought Blair and Brown to power 10 years ago.
There is no doubt that Brown would feel more at home if the Democrats controlled the White House as well as Congress but – for the next 18 months at least – he must reconcile himself to the fact that he will be dealing with the most Right-wing, and ideologically uncompromising administration of modern times.
At the core of that relationship is, of course, the Iraq War. Blair has already charted a tack away from the Bush Administration on that front, committing to a British wind-down from Iraq which will make the war an essentially American operation by the end of 2007. Though there is pressure from the left wing of his party to move more quickly, it seems unlikely that Brown will adjust the Blair timetable and plan aggressively, though there may be some adjustments. The Times reports:
One of the Chancellor’s allies said last night: “His current assessment is that the the timetable is right. But such matters must be kept under review and that will be among the purposes of his visit, although his big concern is to make the people of Iraq feel they have a stake in their country through economic development.”
A change of policy on Iraq would be considered a dramatic shift from Mr Blair’s stance, but diplomatic sources said that the strong US criticism of President Bush for sending 25,000 more troops to Baghdad gives Mr Brown an opportunity to accelerate the withdrawal process.
All of this points to a steady disengagement from Iraq, and a superficially friendly relationship with the Bush White House. However, the new man in Downing Street is likely to feel far more at home with the Democratic Congressional leadership than with the White House and to be rooting for a Democratic victory in the 2008 presidential elections. Nothing too surprising there. But given the current state of play in Britain, this may just as well describe the attitude of the Conservative Party.