Fine words on the White House lawn, but a vision removed from reality

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The Independent Online
"Tony Blair," said George Bush, standing with his friend on the White House lawn yesterday, "is a 'stand-up kinda guy,' as we say in Crawford." To which one might add a country saw from back here: "Kind words butter no parsnips."</p>Of fine words there was no shortage yesterday. The two men positively outdid each other in their calls on "freedom" and "liberty" and their description of the "fantastic opportunities" opened up by the hand-over of power in Iraq and the Israeli plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip. As so often in the past, the British Prime Minister provided the articulacy and the "narrative" so lacking in the President's uncertain and drifting remarks.</p>Tony Blair had gone there not to berate his host, as so many back here wanted, but to show solidarity and to convince his critics that, despite all the setbacks, the two allies had a clear plan and were keeping to it. To listen to the two of them, you would think that the only thing that stood between the present and a blissful future of liberty was a bunch of extremists dedicated to opposing democracy in Iraq and in Palestine.</p>If only it were as simple as that. When President Bush stood beside Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the same White House on Wednesday, it was more than to declare an Israeli pull-out from Gaza as a new beginning of negotiations. On two crucial points, a Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders and the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, he specifically pre-empted any talks with the Palestinians and negated some of their most basic negotiating demands. For Tony Blair to pretend now that this opens doors rather than closes them is deliberately misleading. All the Western aid in the world cannot make up for a simple truth which Sharon seeks to avoid: lasting peace demands a negotiated and just settlement between the parties.</p>In the same way, to paint a picture of Iraq as a state imperilled only by violent foes of democracy ignores the reality on the ground, where much of the resistance comes from a nationalist opposition to occupation and an increasing distrust both of US heavy-handed tactics in securing order and its long-term intentions in the country. There is no proper plan or preparation for the 30 June deadline and President Bush's new interest in involving the UN in that hand-over, and Tony Blair's eager pursuit of a new resolution in the UN Security Council, are a sign of just how in need of international help the US has become in Iraq. Washington wants the international community to take the responsibility but it is still not clear - and was certainly made no clearer yesterday - how far it is ready to cede power with that responsibility. Until it does, it is difficult to see how far the UN can step in.</p>Beneath the fine words yesterday there are signs that an increasingly embattled President and his British ally recognise that a change of approach is needed in Iraq and the Middle East. But all Blair's rhetoric cannot mask the simple fact that it is President Bush who calls the shots and that his actions are very far from reassuring. </p>