Leading article: A defensive speech that smacked of desperation

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The Independent Online

The timing of this year's Guildhall speech could hardly have been better. Probably more is in flux in British foreign policy than at any time since the weeks of frenetic diplomacy that preceded the intervention in Iraq. The splendid setting of the Lord Mayor's banquet provided the Prime Minister with a forum to set out his perception of what should be done and the possibilities as he sees them at this critical juncture.

In one respect, his points were reassuring. He invited Iran and Syria, in effect, to join a combined international effort to restore stability across the region in the latest sign that these key regional powers are to be brought in from the cold. He called for renewed emphasis on solving the Palestinian problem - arguably the genesis of the conflicts and terrorism that flows from the region. And in attacking critics of his Government's close relations with Washington, he also attacked Eurosceptics, stressing that both aspects were in Britain's national interests as he saw them.

It is worth thinking back four years, however. If the Prime Minister's speech illustrated nothing else, it showed just how much has been lost in the years since Britain joined forces with the US to oust Saddam Hussein. It is a sad day when the Prime Minister feels it necessary to exhort a home audience to think more positively about the United States and tries to explain why the transatlantic alliance is good for Britain. The goodwill that followed the attacks of 11 September 2001, should never have been allowed to dissipate.

As for the Middle East, it is to Mr Blair's credit that he accompanied his support for the Iraq war with periodic reminders to Mr Bush about the need to keep trying to advance a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And there were times, perhaps when the "special relationship" was under greatest stress, when President Bush repeated his commitment to the continued involvement of the United States in the Middle East. The effort nonetheless seemed fitful and half-hearted. The tardy response of both leaders to the conflict in Lebanon this summer only augmented the sense that, post-Iraq, neither could be an honest broker.

Most telling of all were the overtures to Iran and Syria. Mr Blair hedged them about with caveats - as he had to. He warned that neither rewards nor concessions were on offer in return for their engagement, only international opprobrium if they refused. Yet the tone smacked of desperation. Four years ago, Britain was making the running in trying to normalise relations with Syria; it has also led the European "troika" in negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. So long as the US damned both as members of the "axis of evil", however, progress was minimal.

Mr Blair was right to keep the channels open, and he is right about trying to bring Syria and Iran into any attempt to resolve the Iraq débâcle. The key, though, will be President Bush and the United States. It is hard enough for Britain to acknowledge that the winners - if there are any - in Iraq are the very countries and regimes whose ambitions the Iraq intervention was supposed to crush. It will be doubly hard for Mr Bush.

The US midterm elections have raised hopes Mr Bush is ready to countenance a sharp change in Iraq policy, along the lines Mr Blair suggested last night. The truth is that the heavy Republican defeat is accelerating a change already in train. The former secretary of state, James Baker, who heads the cross-party Iraq Study Group, had already argued direct talks with Syria and Iran should not be ruled out. Mr Blair's calls over the months and years had fallen on deaf ears in Washington. It is not the special relationship, but the facts on the ground that have convinced Mr Bush to change direction.

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