Being America's best friend doesn't get any easier for Britain
By J.F.O. MCALLISTER
Sunday, May. 02, 2004
"His allies in Washington need more British troops. But his generals are reluctant to send them. For Tony Blair, the pain of being George W. Bush's best foreign friend grows ever more acute. The latest run of bad news started last week with an open letter from 52 retired senior diplomats, blasting the British Prime Minister for following too meekly in Bush's footsteps, both in endorsing Israel's plan to impose unilateral terms in the West Bank and Gaza, and in doing nothing visible to shift the American approach to the occupation of Iraq.
"If [British influence] is unacceptable or unwelcome [in Washington], there is no case for pursuing policies that are doomed to failure," the ambassadors thundered. Downing Street tried to paint them mostly as "camels," Arabists with an anti-Israeli bias, but the range of signatories was broader than that — and their letter reflects the anxieties of many serving diplomats and MPs as well.
Still more worrisome for Blair is the growing unease among senior military officers about Britain's role in Iraq's occupation, now being amplified by the urgent U.S. request for more troops. The Pentagon has suggested that Brits replace the 1,300 Spanish soldiers now going home by expanding their occupation zone. Saying yes would require dispatching several thousand British soldiers to Iraq. Blair's strong instinct is to accede.
But British officers fear that what one calls the "Fort Apache tactics" of American forces, most notably in Fallujah before last week's pullout, are starting to suck the country into a spiral of bloody resistance and bloodier response. General Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, alluded to this two weeks ago when he said, "We must be able to fight with the Americans, but we don't have to fight as the Americans." A Whitehall official said Jackson's remarks were the tip of an iceberg, "very, very significant. There's a lot of concern about Fallujah. The professionals are worried. That's slowed down" consideration of the Pentagon's request.
British officers know the U.S. zone is a tougher neighborhood than their turf in Basra. Despite their embarrassment when pictures of British soldiers apparently beating and urinating on an Iraqi captive surfaced last week, they are convinced their general approach of nourishing relationships with locals through constant contact and patient negotiation could help the Americans defuse violence — and obtain good intelligence if it breaks out. But British tactical advice isn't making much of a dent in the Yankee juggernaut. Frustration at this impotence is one reason why Jeremy Greenstock, the U.K. representative in Baghdad, declined Blair's request to extend his stay.
It's a serious political risk for Blair to pledge more British lives in the cause of the Atlantic alliance when ambassadors and generals, to say nothing of polls, remind him his closeness to Bush is a political albatross. But Blair continues to believe that retaining private influence with Bush simply demands the discipline of no public criticism, even if he looks weak as a result.
"If he were now to suggest the slightest rift with the White House, the story would be monumental," says a former senior diplomat. "He is really hostage to his relationship with Bush." Blair's decision on sending the extra troops is expected next week.