Our PM stands shoulder to shoulder with Mr Bush. But what do we get out of it?

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The Independent Online

Ever since the Prime Minister promised to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States on that fateful day three years ago, there has been no shortage of speculation about what Tony Blair has offered the US in fulfilment of that pledge. And no shortage of complaint about the poverty of America's return to us.

Ever since the Prime Minister promised to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States on that fateful day three years ago, there has been no shortage of speculation about what Tony Blair has offered the US in fulfilment of that pledge. And no shortage of complaint about the poverty of America's return to us.

We reveal today that Mr Blair has secretly agreed to the US siting interceptor missiles on British soil as part of its "Star Wars" programme. This is a programme that will worsen the asymmetry of global power, reducing the perceived costs to the US of launching pre-emptive strikes and dividing the world between those within the shield and those outside it.

At the same time, Mr Blair is being asked by President George Bush to move British troops in Iraq from Basra to Baghdad to "fill in" for US forces required in the assault on Fallujah. This request would be controversial at any time, but in the last two weeks of a US presidential election campaign it comes freighted with partisan significance. President Bush has already used Mr Blair's name more than once in the television debates with John Kerry as evidence that his administration is not isolated. For all Mr Blair's notional impartiality, the one foreign politician with any traction on US public opinion has already delivered his implied endorsement of the President.

All that, it may be argued, is just politics. Meanwhile, in the real world, real decisions have to be made that will bear on the lives and possible deaths of British service personnel. The decision to move troops from the British sector in the south of Iraq to Baghdad, where they will be under US command, is an important one. So far, the handling of the decision has been poor and the anxiety caused to the families of the soldiers who might be redeployed has been unnecessary.

As for the decision itself, we find ourselves in agreement to a surprising extent with Nicholas Soames, the Conservative defence spokesman. He said that he had no objection in principle to British troops serving under US command, but that Britain must insist on an equal say in the strategy for defeating the insurgents as the price of co-operation. It is time to bring to an end, he rightly said, the "rather supine" impression that the US "ordered everything to happen while we just follow along".

The US request to Mr Blair vindicates the criticism of the Bush strategy in Iraq voiced by Mr Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, and the complaint by Paul Bremer, the former US administrator, that he was not given enough troops to do the job.

The result is that Britain, under Mr Blair's "rather supine" leadership, risks being sucked further into the quagmire, and our troops risk being left to pick up the pieces following US incompetence.

We are a long, long way from the hopes of the optimistic tendency that Mr Blair would be the voice of reason and restraint in President Bush's ear. Again and again the US, in its quasi-imperial arrogance, has swept aside outside advice. If Mr Blair cannot exploit the leverage afforded by the imminence of the US election to insist on conditions for British help, he never will.

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