Donald Macintyre: Mr Blair's dilemma: should he take the risk of supporting our US allies?

'This is not the time to patronise America by offering it a welter of unsolicited public advice'
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The Independent Online

'This is not the time to patronise America by offering it a welter of unsolicited public advice'

Chris Patten, emerging from a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, remarked that, as after President Kennedy's assassination, he thought as he watched the television pictures from Washington and New York on Tuesday that these were events that would change the world. Whether that's true or not, it will change politics on a much wider scale than within the United States itself.

Tony Blair appears to have been one of the first national leaders to realise this. His touch since he was first telephoned by a Downing Street official on Tuesday in the Grand Hotel in Brighton as he put the final polish on a speech to the Trades Union Congress that he would never deliver, appears to have been remarkably sure.

Mr Blair was right to cancel the speech – actually the most important he would have made since the election. At his press conference yesterday he deliberately left many questions unanswered. But having done much already to internationalise the conflict he was right to point out that many Britons are certain to have been among the thousands killed in the World Trade Centre. He was right to go out of his way to praise British Muslims for their decency and Muslim organisations in Britain for their unequivocal condemnation of the butchery.

And he has almost certainly been deft in recalling Parliament for Friday. As Douglas Hurd argued in 1990 at the time of the invasion of Kuwait, an early recall of Parliament in such circumstances is pretty well essential. To put it crudely, Parliament will be invited to give him its backing at a time when the shock at the hideous events of Tuesday will not have worn off. Probably too, American retaliation will not have happened, so that the debate will be about the atrocity – if such a mundane word is appropriate – more than about its as yet unknown aftermath. And the new leader of the Conservative Party will have his first chance to show that he can be statesmanlike as well as a mere party politician. This is sensible, for the going is likely to get very rough.

The dilemmas for Western leaders, starting above all, of course, with the US President, aren't difficult to describe. If he yields to possible calls from parts of middle America and from his own ultra right for an eye-for-an-eye military reaction which achieves no more than the loss of thousands more civilian lives, this time in the Arab world, he acts exactly as the perpetrators of the Manhattan slaughter would have wanted.

In fact, the view in London – based on a series of contacts which began late Tuesday between Sir Christopher Meyer, the British Ambassador, and the President's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and continued with Mr Blair's telephone call with the President yesterday, is that the Administration is moving in a measured way towards inevitable retaliation and that President Bush meant what he said yesterday when he talked about being "patient and focused". And that having criticised previous operations from Carter's Iranian tragedy to President Clinton's bombing of factories in Sudan, the Bush administration wants to build its evidence before acting – and values the support of it allies.

But this isn't an easy political ride for the European leaders either. As many have already noted, the carnage shows the futility of isolationism, and the degree to which, in the most macabre and literal sense, the lives of the citizens of the most powerful country in the world are directly dependent on its foreign relations.

On the one hand there will be criticisms – perhaps not only from the left – of unconditional support for US military action. Yesterday's statement from the European Union was long on words and gestures – including the theatre of a day of mourning. It remains to be seen how far the Europeans will hold together after the US has carried out its retaliation. On the other hand the dangers of alienating an American administration at the time of its greatest test could not be plainer. Part of the discussion initiated by Mr Blair among European leaders yesterday dwelt on the need to ensure that the US was not, at this moment of unimaginable tragedy, forced back on to itself. If ever there was a time to patronise the United States by offering it a welter of unsolicited public advice, this is not it.

Which is one of many reasons for Mr Blair's instinctive desire to support, if necessary with military assistance, what the US does next. He wouldn't be drawn yesterday on whether the Government would require its own independent intelligence assessment of whether chosen targets were the right ones before giving the US military backing. But given that the US and the UK share intelligence anyway, and given that the Administration appears to be proceeding methodically, it may not even be a relevant question.

In the medium to long term there will be many questions within the alliance. Does the tragedy suggest that a missile defence system which wouldn't have prevented this act of war, is the best use of the colossal funding needed? More pertinently still, can the US be persuaded to resume its good offices in securing the just settlement in the Middle East on which global stability, and the eradication of the roots of most Middle Eastern terrorism, in the long term depends? But the allies have no chance whatever of promoting these causes unless they stand by the US now.

Another reason is that it's right. The events of Tuesday have indeed changed everything. They have defined not only the Bush administration's task over four and perhaps eight years. They have also, as Chris Patten also pointed out in Brussels yesterday, echoing Mr Blair, ensured that the US's battle is also that of all the world's democracies.

Provided the Bush Administration doesn't lose its head, retaliation and deterrence is not some dubious adventure like the Vietnam war was seen to be long before its end. It is the exercise of duty in defence of its own citizens – the minimum requirement of a democratic state.

It's legitimate for politicians on this side of the Atlantic to exert influence to try to ensure that the right targets, and not the wrong and counter-productive ones, are defined.

It's legitimate to engage in fierce argument behind the scenes about means, as even Margaret Thatcher did from time to time with Presidents Reagan and Bush. But it isn't possible to exclude the prospect that all this may in turn make people here a target too. Pray to God it may not happen. But that's what alliance is about.