The fact that the President is knee-deep in the trash of the affair of "Monica whatever-her-name-is", as the Prime Minister's official spokesman described her, means that the terms of trade in image are more in Britain's favour than ever. Mr Blair can hardly be criticised for wanting to take full advantage of the situation, although so far his attempts to provide moral support for the President without commenting on the specific allegations have been rather ungainly. But we are entitled to ask what the people of Britain are getting out of it.
For some, questioning the special relationship is simply absurd, reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch. "Yes, but, apart from saving our nation in two world wars and rebuilding Europe with Marshall Aid, what have the Americans ever done for us?" Surely, though, all alliances have to be judged afresh for each generation, as Mr Blair himself might put it.
So let us consider the other two aspects of the relationship. First, foreign policy. We should put aside the thought that missile-rattling against Saddam Hussein is a diversionary tactic aimed at American public opinion. Even if that were true, it would not invalidate military action against Iraq, if it is justified in international law. And it should be said clearly and unhesitatingly that it is.
As the Prime Minister reminded the Commons on Wednesday, the Iraqi leader agreed at the UN to destroy all his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Since then, UN inspectors have found abundant evidence that he has failed to do so. Mr Blair is quite right to pledge this country's full support for the enforcement of UN resolutions. That is not slavishly following Washington's line: it would be required by any foreign policy calling itself "ethical", and it is the French and the Russians who should be criticised for trying to undermine the rule of law.
There is no need for a special relationship here. However, simply stopping Saddam from developing weapons of mass destruction will not bring a just and lasting settlement in Iraq. That requires a wider accommodation between the Arab countries and the West, and Israel. Where the British government has been too reluctant to criticise America is on its policy towards Israel. If UN resolutions should be enforced pitilessly against Iraq, so they should be against Israel, and Mr Blair should tell Mr Clinton so.
The most potentially valuable strand of the special relationship, then, is the ideological one. Just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan lent support to each other's domestic policies, Mr Blair and Mr Clinton claim to have learnt from each other on welfare reform, social inclusion, schools and labour market policy. Today, Mr Blair's best minds meet All the President's Wonks for a "freewheeling" discussion. They intend to carry on thrashing out the nitty gritty of the so-called "third way" between Reagan-Thatcher capitalism and state socialism.
Good luck to them. But do not expect The Answer to be issued on tablets of stone at the news conference afterwards. The truth is that the promise of Clintonism, which won the presidency in 1992 and inspired Mr Blair's dash for the Labour leadership on a platform of social moralism, has not yet been realised in the US. "Welfare as we know it" has not been ended, and the "Wisconsin model" for getting people off welfare and into work has only just started. The fact is that, after five years, Mr Clinton's side of the table has surprisingly little concrete to offer Mr Blair's. The President's State of the Union address last week would have been good at the start of an administration, but not towards its end. No wonder both leaders say they are worried that their joint "project" will be seen more as soundbite than substance.
Let us hope that, behind the niceties, Mr Blair and his party are learning the real lessons - of the relative failure of the New Democrat project. As with many human relationships, the special relationship needs a healthy dose of hypocrisy and mutual scepticism to succeed.Reuse content