Much has been made of President Bush's supposed U-turn on Iraq. His decision to return to the United Nations, cap in hand (sort of), has been hailed as the first step in a full retreat from the action-man unilateralism that drove him to wage war in the first place. What has been neglected in all the cheering of George Bush from these shores, however, is that the simple option of a U-turn is not open to Britain.
In the mess that is Iraq today - delicately termed in the Foreign Secretary's leaked notes as "the risk of strategic failure" - Tony Blair and British diplomacy find themselves impaled on a gigantic hook that is entirely of their own making. In deciding to back the US-inspired war on Iraq, Mr Blair made a fateful choice that aligned Britain with Washington and against much of Europe, even as he aspired to be a mediator.
There may have been many reasons for his choice, the first -that should not be discounted even by the most cynical - being the one advanced by Mr Blair again at his press conference this week: that he believed that it was "the right thing to do". There are other possibilities, too, all of them nobler than the "poodle" insult would suggest. They include the calculation that it would have been more dangerous to let the US go it alone, with no restraining force from an ally, and the judgement that when the choice had to be made, the alliance with the all-powerful United States was more important to Britain's national interest than the union with Europe.
These were defensible reasons, even if they seemed to some of us to be misguided and now, with the benefit of hindsight, look grievously wrong. The more immediate difficulty for Britain, however, is what happened next. In the briefly victorious aftermath of the war, Britain made huge efforts to restore the European and international relationships it had shattered. What Mr Blair seems never to have appreciated, however, is the depth of ill-feeling, especially in Europe, over the decision of the US and Britain to go to war in the first place, without a mandate from the UN.
As the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated, Britain's hope of recovering its international standing by mediating a grand reconciliation has dwindled to almost nothing. The French, Germans and Russians, as well as public opinion across Europe, feel vindicated for opposing the war. Their view - even if they are generally too polite to express it out loud - is that Britain made its bed with the United States and must lie on it.
When Britain complains, as the Blair loyalist, Ann Clwyd MP, did yesterday, that the French seem to be taking pleasure in the US and British predicament and ignoring the reality that Iraq is a "world problem", this disregards a central fact. France - like Germany, India, Russia and all the other countries that want UN cover before they offer troops for Iraq - have national politics no less than we do. Why should they endanger their troops in a cause that they still see as a misconceived American adventure? Especially as any financial or trading incentives are vanishing fast as sabotage and attacks by terrorists in Iraq multiply.
Already hitched to the Amerrican wagon, British diplomacy now finds itself with almost nowhere to turn. It tried, for a short while in early summer, to assemble a consensus for reforming the United Nations. This carried little conviction; it looked too much as though, having failed to get its way in the UN as currently constituted, Britain wanted structural changes to ensure that the same thing could never happen again.
Reform of the United Nations must wait. In an overture towards Europe, Mr Blair announced that he would launch a campaign for the euro through the summer. This has now been quietly postponed until next year after becoming an early casualty of the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. Britain also courted Iran, Syria and Palestinian leaders in the hope of differentiating itself from the United States and building new alliances in the region. The failure on each front has been all too evident.
Nowhere, however, is the ambiguity and embarrassment of Britain's position clearer than in Iraq itself. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who as British ambassador to the UN failed to clinch the "second resolution", takes up his post next week as the British Government's special envoy in Baghdad. Like his short-term predecessors, he will be de facto deputy head of the occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). But he will have no executive position and no title to that effect, and Britain prefers it that way.
Were he to be Paul Bremer's official deputy, he would have to take orders from the American administrator and be responsible to Washington as well as London. Britain is not so enamoured of the US-led CPA that it sees any advantage in being more closely associated with it than it has to be.
Four months after the war was pronounced over, the alliance with the United States has become a liability that is costing British lives, British taxpayers' money and British influence elsewhere in the world. What is worse, Mr Bush's desperate need for international help as the next election approaches, means that the French, Germans and other opponents of the war in Iraq can now demand a higher price from the Americans than we are able to.Reuse content