The blood of British soldiers must not be spilled in vain

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The Independent Online

George Bush was not our choice as President of the United States for the next four years, and it was not ours to make, but the American people have spoken, and in record numbers. This newspaper has never taken the view that Mr Bush is a brainless cowboy, the puppet of sinister vested interests. We accept that he is a leader with what he sees as the interests of his country and the world at heart. To that extent at least we agree with Tony Blair that America's friends have an obligation to engage with the Bush administration.

George Bush was not our choice as President of the United States for the next four years, and it was not ours to make, but the American people have spoken, and in record numbers. This newspaper has never taken the view that Mr Bush is a brainless cowboy, the puppet of sinister vested interests. We accept that he is a leader with what he sees as the interests of his country and the world at heart. To that extent at least we agree with Tony Blair that America's friends have an obligation to engage with the Bush administration.

We do not share the Prime Minister's blithe optimism, however, that the best way to influence this president is to offer unconditional support and hope that he, recognising an unwritten code of honour among great men, will return it with interest. It is true that, from Bush Mk I, Mr Blair secured two important concessions for the "blood price" that he was prepared to pay. First, Mr Bush agreed to take his case for military action in Iraq to the United Nations; second, he agreed, on the eve of war, to publish the "road-map" to a two-state settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Sadly, neither gesture came to anything.

Nor can we assume that Bush Mk II will be more amenable to Mr Blair's persuasions than his first-term incarnation. Mr Blair's injunction to his European colleagues to come to terms with the "new reality" of Mr Bush's second term sounded rather like a plea for them to admit defeat and accept the old reality of the Republican worldview. We would turn Mr Blair's words round and plead with him to "understand" the "reality" that, as Menzies Campbell argues on the opposite page, America's allies need to make their support conditional on getting something in return.

In that context, praise for Mr Blair's urgency in seeking to press the issues of Middle East peace and climate change on the new administration must be qualified by a "new realism". On the one hand, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Yasser Arafat's withdrawal from Ramallah offer the hope of progress. On the other, we have been here before, and there must be real doubts about whether Mr Bush, unlike his father, will ever put meaningful economic pressure on the Israeli government. Or that he even recognises quite how important a settlement would be in ameliorating the damage done to relations between Muslim countries and the West by the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

It is not enough for Mr Blair simply to hope that the President, now freed from the constraints of US electoral arithmetic, will change his policy on the Middle East for the sake of making his mark on history. We will have to wait to see the make-up of Mr Bush's new cabinet before we have any tangible sign, but it is just as likely that he will move further to the right in his second term as that he intends to move back towards the centre.

Mr Blair ought to make clear, as he has so far failed to do either in public or in private, that there is no point in a special relationship that goes only one way. It is time for some straight talking. As British soldiers give their lives to support the US in Iraq, with the prospect of more casualties to come, the Prime Minister is entitled to insist on getting something back for his unstinting support over the past four years.

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