Vintage - vacuous - Blair
For the past two days, the heads of British diplomatic missions around the world have assembled in London for a conference on leadership. This unprecedented gathering was addressed yesterday by the Prime Minister.
Seeking, as usual, to situate Britain in the middle ground, he spoke of its being both part of the European Union and the closest ally of the United States, of its membership of the Commonwealth and its historical ties with nearly all the countries of Asia and Latin America.
Turning from geographical outreach to overriding contemporary issues, he threw his weight behind the Americans in the struggle against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but asked them in return to listen to others' concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poverty, global warming and the authority of the United Nations.
This was vintage Blair, seeking to act as a transatlantic bridge between an American administration chary of multilateral entanglements and a European Union ever keener to assert its own foreign and security policy. At the same time, the Prime Minister was looking over his shoulder at those members of the Labour Party happy to condemn George W Bush as a cowboy. It was, as one might have expected, a skilful political performance - praising Washington while keeping options open as to what might happen in Iraq, massaging potentially bolshie backbenchers with references to the defunct Middle East peace process, tackling poverty and reaching out to the Muslim world.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that his familiar, all-embracing message is beginning to sound stale and overtaken by events. We are on the brink of an American intervention in Iraq that could provoke in the Middle East the kind of seismic change seen in eastern Europe in 1989-90. Yet, in marked contrast to what is happening in America, there was no discussion in his speech of the kind of new order that might be desirable.
Perhaps Tony Blair believes that Saddam Hussein will simply be replaced by a less odious Iraqi and the rest of the region will remain as before. Given the impact of a Western power overthrowing an Arab leader, the instability in neighbouring Iran and Saudi Arabia and the possibility of Israel's using the cover of a second Gulf war drastically to tighten the screws on the Palestinians, that seems wishful thinking.
The vacuousness of the speech is reflected in the Government's actions. The invitation to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to visit London last month failed to wean him from supporting Palestinian terrorists. The decision to convene a meeting of Palestinians in London fulfilled a Labour Party conference pledge, but was singularly ill-timed: there will be no basis for a peace initiative until the Israeli election has taken place and the impact of Saddam's overthrow has been digested.
Even our military preparations appear limp-wristed. Yesterday, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, told the Commons that only 1,500 reservists would be called out initially and that naval units would be sent to the Mediterranean, with the option of proceeding to the Gulf "if and as required". With the Americans gearing for action next month, our deployment seems dilatory, and the message from the Cabinet, with Mr Hoon yesterday criticising Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, for assessing the chances of war as 60-40 against, is confusing.
After September 11, Mr Blair won the confidence of the Americans and thereby the power to influence the conduct of the war on terror. As phase two of that war approaches, he appears increasingly driven by events outside his control.
'Britain's role is to unite the world'
By George Jones, Political Editor
Britain's role in the world today is to act as a "unifier" in helping to establish a new global consensus, Tony Blair said yesterday.
"We can only play a part in helping this. To suggest more would be grandiose and absurd - but it is an important part," he told a conference of more than 100 British ambassadors and High Commissioners in London. This shared agenda included security from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), elimination of regional conflicts, a stable world economy, free trade, action against climate change, and aid and development.
The speech in full
First, we should remain the closest ally of the US and, as allies, influence them to continue broadening their agenda. We are the ally of the US not because they are powerful, but because we share their values. I am not surprised by anti-Americanism; but it is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults - and all nations have them - the US are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud.
It is massively in our self-interest to remain close allies. But we should use this alliance to good effect. The problem people have with the US is not that, for example, they oppose them on WMD or international terrorism. People listen to the US on these issues and may well agree with them; but they want the US to listen back.
So for the international community, the Middle East peace process is also important; global poverty is important; global warming is important; the UN is important.
The US choice to go through the UN over Iraq was a vital step, in itself and as a symbol of the desire to work with others. A broader agenda is not inimical to the US; on the contrary. For example the US decision to back a new relationship between Nato and Russia has made both missile defence and Nato enlargement easier and less divisive.
The price of British influence is not, as some would have it, that we have to do what the US asks. I would never commit British troops to a war I thought was wrong or unnecessary. Where we disagree, as over Kyoto, we disagree.
But the price of influence is that we do not leave the US to face the tricky issues alone. By tricky, I mean the ones which people wish weren't there, don't want to deal with, and, if I can put it a little pejoratively, know the US should confront, but want the luxury of criticising them for it.
So if the US act alone, they are unilateralist; but if they want allies, people shuffle to the back. International terrorism is one such issue.
The fanatics have to be confronted and defeated - in ideas as well as militarily. WMD is another. I want to make it clear. In February 2001, at my first meeting with President Bush, I said this was the key issue facing the world community. I believe that even more today. The latest revelations about North Korea are a manifest wake-up call to the world.
This shouldn't divert us from tackling Iraq and WMD. There will be different ways of dealing with different countries. But no one can doubt the salience of WMD as an issue and the importance of countering it.
North Korea's weapons programme and export of it; the growing number of unstable or dictatorial states trying to acquire nuclear capability; the so-called respectable companies and people trading in it: this is a real, active threat to our security and it is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it.
So when, as with Iraq, the international community, through the UN, makes a demand on a regime to disarm itself of WMD and that regime refuses, that regime threatens us. It may be uncomfortable - there will be the usual plethora of conspiracy theories - but unless the world takes a stand on this issue and sends out a clear signal, we will rue the consequences of our weakness.
America should not be forced to take this issue on alone. We should all be part of it. Of course, it should go through the UN - that was our wish. But if the will of the UN is breached then the will should be enforced.
So when the US confront these issues, we should be with them; and we should, in return, expect these issues to be confronted with the international community.
We must reach out to the Muslim world. It is about even-handedness. The reason there is opposition over our stance on Iraq has less to do with any love of Saddam, but over a sense of double standards.
The Middle East remains essential to any understanding with the Muslim and Arab world. The terrorism inflicted upon innocent Israeli citizens is wicked and murderous and undoubtedly will bring strong action from Israel. No democratic government could do otherwise. That is not the point. The point is that unless there is real energy put into crafting a process that can lead to lasting peace, neither the carnage of innocent Israelis nor the appalling suffering of the Palestinians will cease. At the moment the future of the innocent is held hostage by the terrorists.
Blair still seen as staunch ally by Americans
By Toby Harnden
When Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary, began to address Parliament on British troop deployments yesterday, American CNN viewers got a brief glimpse of the top of his head and heard his first four words.
The cable channel then cut for an ad break and never returned to the Commons, opting instead for coverage of the Detroit Auto Show. The Prime Minister's speech was not featured.
For the White House, the only important question about Tony Blair is whether he is still, to use his own phrase, standing "shoulder to shoulder" with America.
That sentiment, first expressed after the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, was seen in America as a reconfirmation of the "special relationship".
The administration believes that Mr Blair, for all his emphasis yesterday on America having "to listen back" and for "issues to be confronted with the international community", has given no indication he is rethinking his support for President George W Bush.
There is close co-ordination between the White House and Downing Street over every utterance about Iraq and Mr Bush's advisers knew in outline what Mr Blair would say.
White House aides are acutely aware of the difficulties Mr Blair has with his own backbenchers and desire, as one official put it, "to cut him some slack" wherever possible if this means shoring him up within the Labour Party.
Mr Blair is lionised across the political spectrum in America. Even Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, and one of the most ardent Right-wingers in America, recently told The Daily Telegraph: "Blair has been very loyal to the occupant of the White House. He has been as staunch an ally as we could have hoped for."
Jack Straw's insistence that the chance of war with Iraq is "60:40 against" made little impact in Washington as it was seen as being aimed at a domestic audience.
If political betting were legal in America, very few people would part with their money at such odds.
The political and military momentum towards a pre-spring conflict with Iraq is already seen as virtually unstoppable.
Mr Blair's assertion yesterday that "our Foreign Service is the best there is" struck a discordant note among Mr Bush's aides because there will be no ambassador in Washington until the summer after Sir Christopher Meyer departs next month.
Some British diplomats argue that Mr Blair could have exacted a higher price for British support over Iraq, pointing out that he failed to prevent the imposition of steel tariffs and his calls for a US Middle East policy that did not tilt so firmly towards Israel were ignored.
They also fear that the decision to do without an ambassador for such a crucial period was calculated to enable Downing Street to operate more closely in concert with the White House.
So, far from being a parting of the ways, the utterances of Mr Blair and Mr Hoon yesterday should probably be seen as little more than the Government taking a slightly different route to a destination agreed with Mr Bush.
Rumsfeld angry at 'twisting of words'
By David Rennie in Washington
America's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, yesterday unleashed a stinging attack on the "inexcusable" twisting of his words by the British media so that his statements of US policy are presented as warnings of war.
An outraged Mr Rumsfeld refused to answer a question about America's war readiness yesterday. He said this was due to British reporting over Christmas, when he was widely said to have warned North Korea that the American military was capable of fighting a war with it, as well as with Iraq.
British headlines on Christmas Eve ran from "We'll take on North Korea as well, declares Rumsfeld", in the Daily Mail, to "Rumsfeld warns North Korea", in the Independent.
The Today programme on Radio 4 described the defence secretary's comments as "belligerent".
Mr Rumsfeld reminded a Pentagon press briefing yesterday that he had merely been responding to a reporter's question, and had offered a statement of standing US policy to prepare for war on two fronts at any time.
Mr Rumsfeld said: "It was breathtaking to read what the London press and some other papers around the United States had banner headlined".
As a result of such treatment, Mr Rumsfeld refused to answer a similar question yesterday.
"How in the world can I come down here, get asked an intelligent question, a perfectly responsible question, give a perfectly responsible answer, if that's what's going to happen?" he said.
"It is inexcusable the way that response was carried."