'Longest week' for Blair as he drums up support for Bush

Shuttle diplomacy
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As Tony Blair flew to Washington on Thursday, he was given an hour-long briefing by four of Britain's senior military planners and intelligence chiefs. There is little doubt about what they discussed: Britain's role in America's military retaliation in Afghanistan aimed at Osama bin Laden. Significantly, the men from the Ministry of Defence stayed behind in Washington for further meetings with their US counterparts while Mr Blair flew to Brussels for Friday night's emergency meeting of European Union leaders.

It was surely Mr Blair's longest week since becoming Prime Minister. Since last Monday he has met or telephoned no less than 26 world leaders and has played a crucial role in rallying support behind the US. He travelled more than 9,000 miles in three days as he went to America then straight on to Germany, France and Belgium.

Was such a punishing schedule really necessary in the age of secure telephone lines and instant communications? Mr Blair's answer is that we are not living in normal times in the wake of the terrorist attacks on America. "There is a non-stop conversation going on between world leaders," his official spokesman said yesterday. "If you can do more of that face-to-face, it is no bad thing."

Although the Brussels meeting promised strong backing for the US riposte, most of the 15 EU countries will decide to stick with words rather than military deeds. The British Government has no such reservations, and Mr Blair's dinner at the White House on Thursday discussed the precise timing and scale of the response. "There was a fair amount of fine-tuning," one Downing Street source said yesterday.

His personal contacts allowed Mr Blair to speak with authority when he told President George Bush: "The coalition is widening and deepening." It was a message the President wanted to hear, and he hailed Mr Blair as a "true friend" of America.

The key question is whether the Prime Minister used his persuasive skills to talk the US out of an immediate overreaction. Downing Street dismisses the idea, saying it was President Bush who decided it was good to talk before acting.

However, there is little doubt that Mr Blair encouraged building the widest possible international coalition against terrorism before the military strikes begin. "We are not against hard action," said a Blair aide. "But you enhance your ability to act by talking calmly and making overtures to the Arab and Muslim world. You have to have a diplomatic offensive to support your military strategy."

At the end of a gruelling week, Mr Blair knows that this is only the start. A long, perhaps indefinite, war against an elusive enemy is about to begin. There will be setbacks and tragedies. Even the first US strikes will be only an opening gambit.

"There will be no quick fixes, no knock-out blow," said one Blair adviser. "People have got to recognise that we are in for the long haul."