Leading article: The harsh reality of this special relationship

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The Independent Online

There was one message, and only one, that issued loud and clear from yesterday's brief encounter between the US President and the British Prime Minister in Washington - and it was not consoling. It was that the two leaders still do not accept the scale of the catastrophe in Iraq and have not abandoned hope of eventual success. Almost back to his old post-9/11 self, George Bush was voluble in extolling his "vision" of freedom and democracy, while Tony Blair stood by - often, it seemed, awkwardly. At no point, though, did he demur.

Mr Bush insisted that the report published by the Iraq Study Group the previous day was just one of several reports due on Iraq, and any major change of course would be considered only when they were all complete. He insisted, too, that it was up to the US Congress to decide what to accept from the report, indicating that it was they, rather than he, who had to be persuaded. This may be a matter of etiquette - the ISG report was commissioned by Congress - but it came across as a supreme act of buck-passing: don't ask me, as the President who led the country into this disaster; ask the legislature what it will accept.

It appears, though, that Mr Bush is not ready to accept the ISG's pessimism. While James Baker had stressed the all-or-nothing nature of the recommendations, Mr Bush said there was no chance "Congress" would accept each and every one. Even the cross-party nature of the report and the political cover it has afforded him are apparently insufficient to persuade him to speak publicly of changing the fundamentals of the policy.

In one respect, however, Mr Bush deserves credit. He, at least, is prepared, unlike Mr Blair, to acknowledge in plain English that much in Iraq has gone badly, and has publicly solicited outside advice. Mr Blair has so far done no such thing. Each inquiry has been tightly circumscribed and largely forced upon him. We have not yet heard the Prime Minister admit that "it's bad", as Mr Bush did yesterday, before elaborating on the many aspects in which it was very bad indeed.

We have not heard from Mr Blair's lips the acknowledgement that the invasion has been "pretty much of a disaster" or that we are "not winning" the war. These words have been articulated only by others. Seeming to agree with something is not at all the same as articulating the truth oneself. It was striking at yesterday's press conference how often Mr Bush waded in to shield Mr Blair from direct questions that required the direct answers he has avoided so long.

For all Mr Bush's domination of proceedings, it was possible to detect slivers of disagreement, notably about the Baker report. We may never know how much pressure, if any, Mr Blair tried to exert on Mr Bush to act on its findings. But beyond its pessimistic tone, the recommendations chime with many aspects of British Iraq policy that have long been on the record. These include the desirability of engaging Iran and Syria; the progressive transfer of security responsibilities to trained Iraqis, even the need to recognise a link between what is happening in Iraq and the failure to find a solution to the Palestinian problem. Mr Blair chose not to make this point from the platform in the White House; the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, though, had noted the similarities before a home audience.

Mr Blair's reticence was eloquent. It spoke of how cool and unequal the "special relationship" has become. Mr Blair now steals in and out of Washington by night; his schedule is all work and no play. He has still not picked up his Congressional medal. The one advance is that Mr Blair has realised his wish to travel to the Middle East with US blessing. US-British relations have reached a pretty pass when this is counted an achievement.

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