The growing irrelevance of Tony Blair

His intermediation is no longer seen as useful in Washington, where he is thought to be a lame duck
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Not many people seem to have noticed, but the one person missing from the UN in New York this week is the head of the country which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, Britain.

Tony Blair has been busy on more pressing domestic matters, visiting hospitals. The international agenda was important, he told reporters on Tuesday, just as George Bush was giving his address to a stony-faced general assembly at the UN, "but it's also important to make sure we are dealing with the problems in our National Health Service."

Fair enough, except that is far from the message Tony Blair was giving as he took the country to war earlier in the year or jetted off to address a joint session of Congress in Washington after it. But then a lot's happened since, including Lord Hutton, an occupation of Iraq that has gone sour and a US administration that has begun to lose its popularity in the States. Tony Blair can be forgiven perhaps for wanting to avoid the kind of excruciating silence that greeted his friend, the US President.

But then the old Blair of just a few months ago would not have let that put him off his appetite for persuasion. He would have been over there impressing the reluctant delegates to join in the task of reconstructing Iraq and parading his credentials as the natural go-between a unilateralist United States and a multilateralist United Nations. If ever there was a moment for Britain to play a central role in bringing the sides together, it should be this.

Should be but isn't. Blair's absence from New York reflects not just his difficulties at home over Iraq but also his growing irrelevance abroad. France, and Germany, have no need of an interlocutor in Washington. They may be demonised in America, but the Administration now needs them and they can manage their own talks with Bush directly.

Equally Blair's intermediation is no longer seen as particularly useful in Washington, where the British Prime Minister is increasingly regarded as a lame duck in his own country. The latest Newsweek's cover picturing the British Prime Minister with the headline "The Twilight of Tony Blair" is a fair indication of how he is now perceived around the world. The reward of loyalty to a greater power, as anyone who reads his or her Shakespeare knows, is to be viewed as dispensable.

And yet there is a real role for an independent ally whose support for America gives it at least the right to be heard, if nothing else. The problem of post-war Iraq to the international community is only partly an issue of the role of the United Nations. Even if that were sorted out with the passing of a UN resolution later this month, it really won't mend the huge gap that opened up between the US and most of the rest of the world.

The difficulty is that the invasion of Iraq has aroused such a deep and widespread distrust of the United States and its motives around the globe. The overthrow of a tyrant may be welcomed, but there is profound suspicion that the US is now embarked on a course of unilateral military intervention out of a philosophy of pre-emptive action and a pursuit of self-interest that threatens to smash all the hopes for peace and change promised by the end of the Cold War.

There was absolutely nothing in President Bush's speech to the general assembly this week to suggest that Washington had changed its view of the world, just that the world needed to share the burden of Iraqi reconstruction. Instead Bush reiterated the same old division of the world into good and evil, the same implied pursuit of terrorist states such as Iran and Syria, and the same demonisation of Yasser Arafat. Which is why it was heard in such silence. Most of the delegates simply don't share that vision.

There is another way. We can already see it developing over North Korea, where the US might is allied to political accommodation by Korea's neighbours. We should be seeing it in the Middle East where, if there is to be any hope for Iraq, it must surely lie in embedding its neighbours into its democratic success. Yet Washington still seeks confrontation with Iran and Syria and actions that destabilise Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt.

In the same way, attempting to marginalise, if not actually remove, Yasser Arafat is entirely self-defeating if Washington really wants a Middle East settlement. There is at least an argument, and one held by most Arab countries as well as European diplomats, that the only way to peace is if Arafat is included in the process.

Most British officials would agree with both these points. So would Tony Blair. A good member of Europe would push for a different course to Washington's. A good friend of America would give it voice in America itself, where an alternative to the neo-conservative vision badly needs to find expression. Yet somewhere along the way, one suspects very early on in the process, Tony Blair lost his freedom for independent manoeuvre with Washington and, in doing so, lost his support elsewhere.

During the discussions at the United Nations this week, no one even commented on his absence. Most didn't seem to notice it and those that did felt too embarrassed at his domestic travails to draw attention to the vacant seat at the head of the table.