Britain’s Tony Blair will on Thursday become the first world leader to visit President Bush since his re-election.
At their first meeting back in 2001, reporters questioned the leaders about their points of mutual agreement and experience; Bush answered that they used the same toothpaste.
Despite their initial lack of common interests, over the last four years the conservative Republican president and the center-left Labour Party prime minister have forged an alliance that goes far deeper than a strip of Colgate.
Blair has given Bush his steadfast support on Iraq and the “war on terror” despite their unpopularity at home.
Widely referred to here as Bush’s “poodle,” Blair has risked his authority and premiership for an American president that the majority of Britons didn’t want to see get re-elected.
With the backlash over Iraq at an all-time high, and ahead of a British election slated for next May, the prime minister is hoping Bush will return the favor by helping him in his second term.
But, experts warn that Blair risks returning from Washington with few U.S. commitments to issues key to the British electorate.
“I’ve never really seen Blair have much influence on Bush — I think in this country we exaggerate the influence of the U.K. on the U.S.,” said Ruth Lea, Director of the Center for Policy Studies, a center-right think tank.
Pledge to revive Mideast 'road map'
In the United Kingdom, it is widely believed that Blair’s backing on Iraq came with a reciprocal pledge from the American president to play a more active role in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.
Blair has made revitalizing the long-stalled "road map" plan a personal priority, and Yasser Arafat's death has brought the issue to the forefront of political discussion.
A day after Bush’s re-election victory, Blair tried to remind the U.S. president of the need to reinvigorate negotiations, calling the conflict the world’s “single most pressing political challenge.”
Following the announcement of Arafat's death on Thursday, Blair again emphasized the issue, saying "peace in the Middle East must be the international community's highest priority."
Although the president’s father, George Bush senior, said the White House had heard Blair’s demand “loud and clear,” and aides have said renewed negotiations were likely, the president did not match Blair’s emphasis on the issue. “I agree with him that the Middle East peace is a very important part of a peaceful world,” he said last week.
Early Thursday, Bush characterized Arafat's death as "a significant moment in Palestinian history."
Blair’s Labour party is “expecting him to use this summit as a litmus test of whether support over the war in Iraq will build support for [progress in the Mideast],” said Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“He’ll get a sympathetic hearing but it’s unlikely he’ll get a new change in policy,” the professor said.
“Europe as a whole has to understand that the rhetoric of the (Mideast) quartet (United Nations, United States, European Union, and Russia) is all very well but there is only one instrument that really counts, and that’s the United States,” he said, adding that Blair’s actions have had no effect on U.S. policy on the Middle East so far.
Even Blair’s official spokesman has sought to dampen expectations of a major breakthrough, suggesting no new initiative would be announced after their meetings on Thursday and Friday.
However, had the reconstruction and democratization of Iraq gone according to plan, Blair’s support for the war may have prompted to United States to push peace throughout the region, according to some analysts.
“Blair’s decision was a good bet if you thought Iraq would turn out well, as the neocons in Washington and perhaps Blair believed,” said Richard Gowan, head of the European Program at the Foreign Policy Center, a think tank backed by the Labour government. But, due to the lack of post-war planning, Blair’s bet has not paid off, according to Gowan.
Both analysts said the situation is now complicated by the power vacuum left by Arafat, and that Bush is unlikely to commit to a new initiative until the projected Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is complete — which won’t be for at least another year.
Iraq: The 'hundred dollar question'
In Britain, anger at the situation in Iraq is growing, with fewer than one third of voters now believing that taking military action was the right thing to do, according to a Populus poll for The Times, released on Tuesday.
“People on this side of the Atlantic look at Iraq and just don’t see how it will be resolved — it must be the $100 question that dominates Blair’s thinking,” said Lea, the director of the Center for Policy Studies.
With the elections in the United States and Australia seen in part as referendums on Iraq, the successes of Bush and Prime Minister John Howard have been used by their supporters to vindicate the decision to go to war.
But, while Blair remained tight-lipped on who he favored in the U.S.-election, Lea said, “Blair was damned if Bush won and damned if he lost.”
“If Kerry would’ve won Blair would’ve come under a lot of criticism for pinning his reputation to a failed president and a policy in Iraq which is deeply unpopular; now that Bush won, Blair will be seen to be associated with a president that is not widely admired in this country.”
Anti-war sentiment has intensified since the U.K.’s 850-strong Black Watch regiment was redeployed from the relatively calm city of Basra, in southern Iraq, to Camp Dogwood, near Baghdad, to free up U.S. troops for the assault on Fallujah.
With the British media frequently referring to the area as a “death trap,” and the Stop The War Coalition and the newly-formed Military Families Against The War staging protests in London as recently as Wednesday, Blair is certain to have Iraq on his mind as he dines with Bush Thursday evening.
“Iraq has been very unpopular in this country even at the best of times, and (Blair) has an election next year, so the pressure to get the (British soldiers) out must be considerable,” Lea said.
Yet despite the rancor, Blair is expected to win a third term due to the lack of a credible opposition. The Conservative party has failed to benefit from Blair's short-comings due to its flip-flopping over the war, and although the Liberal Democrats are expected to gain parliamentary seats, they are coming from too far behind to win a majority.
Just two meals, but a lot on their plates
Meantime, relatives and rights lawyers are urging Blair to demand the release of all Britons and other Europeans from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba when he meets with Bush.
Guantanamo is an ongoing headache for Blair, who has repeatedly raised the issue with the Bush administration but has failed to make progress despite his close relations with the president.
The prime minister is also expected to raise a number of other issues during his visit, including Iran’s nuclear capabilities, aid to Africa, and the Kyoto protocol.
While the leaders are only scheduled to have two meals together, they will have a lot on their plates.