Leading article: The Northern Alliance

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The Independent Online

Blackburn becomes for today the centre of transatlantic diplomacy. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is returning the compliment Jack Straw paid her last year when he spent a weekend in her home state of Alabama. Ms Rice's programme includes a lecture, meetings with civic leaders and a gala concert in Liverpool. A visit to a Blackburn mosque was cancelled after threats of demonstrations.

Even without the mosque visit, it is probably true that little in Ms Rice's varied career will have prepared her for real life in Mr Straw's constituency. But it will do her no harm to glimpse - as close as her security detail permits - the balancing act that all British ministers must perform between their government responsibilities and their duties as constituency MPs. Opposition to the Iraq war among his Muslim constituents reduced Mr Straw's majority at the last election. This system provides a reality-check from which members of the US administration are exempt.

With protests planned in both Blackburn and in Liverpool, Ms Rice will be left in little doubt about the strength of public feeling. The Iraq war hangs heavy not only over Tony Blair's foreign policy record - as we have just seen from the hostile questions addressed to him by schoolchildren in Indonesia - but over relations at grassroots level between Britain and the US. The goodwill that flowed towards America after the 11 September terrorist attacks was dissipated within the year by maladroit US diplomacy. The invasion of Iraq and all that followed only deepened the rift.

Ms Rice arrived at the State Department with a clear mandate to mend the many fences shattered by Iraq. And her short tenure is not without achievement. Morale at the State Department is improved; the sniping between Defence and State has subsided (though the continuing violence in Iraq may have something to do with this), and Ms Rice is laying foundations for a shift in US foreign policy priorities towards India and China. Far more influential with President Bush than her predecessor, Colin Powell, she has taken some of the sharp ideological edge off the language in which the US speaks to the world.

That said, she carries the baggage of the Bush administration apparently without demur: the simplistic view of US-style democracy as a panacea that can be imposed and the presumption that the "war on terror" justifies extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, and ambivalence in relation to torture. So long as the White House persists in its doctrine of "might is right" and "God is on our side", she is complicit. Outside the US, there is no confusion on this score, as she will discover in the north-west of England this weekend.

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