So much bonhomie, but what has Mr Blair achieved in Washington?

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The Independent Online

Two leaders, two continents, two very different national political contexts - and one message trumpeted loud and clear: whatever the stresses and strains of the past two years, the transatlantic relationship is as strong as at any time in its history. If either leader felt any anxiety over, for instance, the war in Iraq, the uncertainty in the Middle East, the coolness towards the United States in Europe, it was not allowed to show.

Two leaders, two continents, two very different national political contexts - and one message trumpeted loud and clear: whatever the stresses and strains of the past two years, the transatlantic relationship is as strong as at any time in its history. If either leader felt any anxiety over, for instance, the war in Iraq, the uncertainty in the Middle East, the coolness towards the United States in Europe, it was not allowed to show.

The White House yesterday was a haven of bonhomie and extravagant admiration that flowed mostly one way - from an expansive President Bush, freshly confident from his re-election - towards Tony Blair, whose trial by election still lies ahead. The atmospherics could scarcely have been more different from the two leaders' first meeting at that awkward "Colgate toothpaste" summit almost four years ago. The laid-back lodges of Camp David had been replaced by the formality of the White House. This was serious summitry conducted by two leaders now comfortable in each other's company.

And Mr Bush's advisers had clearly done their homework. Of the second-term plans Mr Bush mentioned, first was a desire to "deepen" ties between the US and Europe - "the two pillars of the free world". He will travel to Europe "as soon as possible" after his inauguration. Mr Blair will be able to claim that his image of himself as the bridge between the two continents is intact.

The death of Yasser Arafat - whose name Mr Bush pointedly declined to mention - allowed prospects for the Middle East to eclipse the dire situation in Iraq as the focus of the leaders' public pronouncements, which probably suited them both very well. Mr Bush pledged that he would use his new term to "spend the capital of the United States" on working to establish a Palestinian state. Time and again he referred to his earlier statements about the need for a two-state solution that would see the state of Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side in peace.

He argued more fervently than before, however, that a Palestinian state had to be "democratic" and "free", leaving the impression that democracy was effectively a precondition for statehood - starting with elections for a successor to Mr Arafat. Although Mr Bush went out of his way to stress the international help that could be on offer if Palestinians chose democratic development, he was equally clear that there would be no new Middle East initiative or peace conference - as Mr Blair had apparently pressed for - unless the Palestinians passed their first electoral test. There went the most tangible reward for his loyalty Mr Blair might have hoped to bring back.

Clearly mindful of Mr Blair's difficulties at home over the war, Mr Bush was lavish in his compliments to the Prime Minister. He was a statesman and a friend, a visionary leader, a man with unshakeable convictions, a big thinker with a clear vision, a rare politician whose word is his bond. If only his alliance with Mr Bush were not such a political liability here at home, Mr Blair must have thought, he could have returned to Downing Street almost in triumph.

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