Mr Bush can afford to spend a little of his political capital helping out Mr Blair

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Scarcely had George Bush been convincingly re-elected than Downing Street disclosed that the Prime Minister would be off to Washington shortly. After months in which it has suited Mr Blair to play down his association with Mr Bush, it seems, the special relationship is suddenly back. This does not mean, however, that the talks in Washington will not be fraught with risk.

Scarcely had George Bush been convincingly re-elected than Downing Street disclosed that the Prime Minister would be off to Washington shortly. After months in which it has suited Mr Blair to play down his association with Mr Bush, it seems, the special relationship is suddenly back. This does not mean, however, that the talks in Washington will not be fraught with risk.

Mr Blair's unswerving support for the Iraq war has not only been highly unpopular in this country, it has left the Prime Minister treading a delicate line between favoured ally and poodle. That he will be the first foreign leader to visit Washington after the US election should be placed in the plus column: early consultations are among the privileges that US presidents ought to accord to favoured allies. Unless Mr Blair returns from Washington with something to show for his trouble, however, he will look all too much like a faithful friend being called to heel by a strengthened Mr Bush.

There are three areas in which Mr Blair could reasonably expect some movement from Washington, and none of them would require Mr Bush to spend a great deal of the new political capital he speaks of. The first would be a more understanding attitude towards the European countries that opposed the invasion of Iraq. In essence, France and the others have been proved right. The intelligence did not justify the use of military force. The aftermath has been just as protracted and violent as the doom-watchers forecast. Early overtures from European contractors about participating in Iraq's reconstruction met scornful rebuffs in Washington. If Mr Blair's relationship with Mr Bush is to mean anything, he must return with a message for our partners in Europe.

They may not yet be amenable to a request for assistance from the US, still less to a request for military help. Some American recognition, however, that the Europeans could play a role in future and that their contribution, military and civilian, in Afghanistan and elsewhere is noted and appreciated would be a start.

The second would be the repatriation of the British prisoners still held at Guantanamo. The US Supreme Court ruled in early summer that these prisoners had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts, but the wheels have moved painfully slowly. Prisoners of other nationalities have since been sent home. The Britons should be handed over to British jurisdiction. This might seem to the US to be an exceptional gesture, but it is a gesture that would be understood as a mark of goodwill.

The third would be an unambiguous signal about US re-engagement in the Middle East. The widely expected demise of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, presages great uncertainty and a possible struggle for the succession. But it also opens an opportunity. In his first term, Mr Bush wrote off Mr Arafat as an unworthy negotiator. The start of a post-Arafat era offers a new beginning with new people and new ideas. There will be no progress, however, without forceful US support and equally forceful US pressure on Israel. This entails political risk, but that risk is considerably less for a second-term US president than for one looking for re-election.

Mr Bush could also find potentially enthusiastic partners for a new Middle East initiative among the anti-war Europeans who believe - as Mr Blair does, and his restless back-benchers do, too - that an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem is the key to stemming anti-Western terrorism around the world, and a condition for peaceful change across the Middle East as a whole.

Mr Blair has long coupled British participation in the Iraq war with the expectation that Washington would return the compliment by pushing for a settlement in the Middle East. With anti-war feeling in Britain again on the rise, casualties mounting by the day and an unhappy Labour Party gearing up for a general election, a US undertaking on the Middle East is the very least that Mr Blair needs to bring back from Washington this weekend.

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