Leading Article: Will Britain be caught in the middle once again?

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The Independent Online
STRANGE, IS it not, how sweetness and light are bursting out all over - even before spring is here? Iraqis go to vote. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are photographed side by side hosting Nelson Mandela. And the US and Europe suddenly cannot get enough of each other's company.

The latest token of the new transatlantic mood was the stop-over in London yesterday by the new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. She was starting a nine-country tour designed to mend the many diplomatic fences President Bush managed to smash during his first term. For the British, Dr Rice's message was that the US has no "better friend and ally" than Britain and that no one, including the US, is about to invade Iran.

Dr Rice went on to Germany, and the big set-piece speech of her tour will be in Paris - home, as though we had forgotten already, of those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" blamed for thwarting Mr Bush's efforts to obtain UN cover for his invasion of Iraq. Rumour has it that she may deliver it in French. How times change.

Or do they? Unless the security situation deteriorates further, the elections in Iraq seem already to have tempered the fury of the anti-war countries of "old" Europe towards Washington. The war has cost the US and Britain dear in lives and money - evidence on the side of those who opposed it. At the same time, the prospect of dealing with an Iraqi government indirectly elected by Iraqis encourages European participation in training and reconstruction. While rapprochement is possible, however - and is already being loudly hailed as reality by both sides - the warmer climate largely reflects a policy that sweeps differences under a thick carpet labelled "Don't mention Iraq".

It is instructive that Mr Blair continues to lie low where transatlantic relations are concerned. He had breakfast with Dr Rice yesterday, but the far more public event was her press conference with Jack Straw. When Mr Bush comes to Europe next month, he will pass London by. While friendlier US-EU relations should ease Mr Blair's sensitivities over his joint Iraq adventure with Mr Bush, this is still clearly perceived to be an electoral liability - as it surely is. After the last Britons were repatriated from Guantanamo, Mr Blair was said finally to have agreed to collect his Congressional medal. We doubt, though, that he will find time to receive it much before mid-May.

True, the language in which Washington is currently addressing Europe is more accommodating, more diplomatic and more nuanced than it was before Mr Bush's re-election. The visits of Dr Rice and Mr Bush so early in his new term also send a conciliatory signal. Looming on the horizon, however, are differences that could prove no less divisive than Iraq. Iran's nuclear ambition is one; another is the EU's determination to lift its arms embargo on China.

So far, on both these issues, Mr Blair has lined up with Europe. But it is hard not to see that here are two blocs, powerful in their own way, pursuing their own interests as they understand them. The danger is that, once again, it will be Britain's fate to be caught in the middle.