Diplomatic Diary: Friends Through Thick And Thin?

How close is too close to power? Normally that would be an easy question to answer: there's no such thing. But when that power involves the life-and-death decision of going to war, maybe you can get too a little too close for comfort.

Since he was swept to power on a landslide victory in 1997, Tony Blair has worked hard to align himself as much as is humanly possible to Washington's power. It's not an original strategy--it worked superbly well for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. And Blair has added some fresh twists of his own-including a potentially awkward transition from close personal friend of Bill Clinton to close personal friend of George W. Bush.

But Blair pulled it off nicely, and in the days after the September 11 attacks and through the war in Afghanistan, the British prime minister's friendship with Bush was the envy of Europe. No other world leader was invited to Washington to hear Bush's ultimatum to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, delivered less than two weeks after the 9-11 attacks. "Once again, we are joined together in a great cause," Bush said to a standing ovation from Congress as Blair struggled to suppress his trademark grin. For Bush and Blair, their alliance harkened back to the glory days of World War II.

If that was the high moment in the odd-couple marriage between the conservative president and the liberal prime minister, the next few weeks will be the toughest test of their friendship.

For Blair, the dangers of being too close to Bush are looming larger with every opinion poll. This week, the latest Guardian/ICM polling shows British opinion running 47 percent against to 30 percent in favor of war in Iraq. A vast majority--81 percent to 10 percent--want to see any military action backed by the United Nations.

But that's not the only problem facing Blair as he prepares to meet Bush for a council of war at Camp David at the end of the month. In a Washington sharply divided between doves and hawks, Blair's aides are finding it tough to keep the trust of both sides as President Bush makes those life-and-death decisions.

While Blair, for instance, views another round of debate at the United Nations as a prerequisite to military action, inside the Bush administration, the biggest advocate for that strategy is Secretary of State Colin Powell. So is working with Powell a good or bad thing? That depends on who's influencing Bush's decision. If it's Vice-President Dick Cheney, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then the Blair's proximity to Powell looks misplaced. One senior British official recounts a recent conversation--over a cup of tea, no less--with a senior aide to Dick Cheney. "Are you bothered when I say to you that a second U.N. Security Council resolution would be the best outcome for Tony Blair and the British government?" he asked. "I understand where you are coming from," was the cool response.

"You have to be careful that you don't become part of the interagency process," admits one senior British official. "You must not be seen as just one faction in the great debates that come to the principals, because then you find yourself carrying water that perhaps you should not be carrying. You have to give advice as a candid, close ally, but not as part of the internal process."

Even Powell is far from being committed to another U.N. vote; Powell says he's only promised to consult the U.N. one more time. And Powell is skeptical that U.N. weapons inspectors are doing any good at all. "Don't forget the chicken farm," says one Powell aide. "In 1995, the inspectors were ready to say they found everything and that nothing was left. Then we got a defector who told us about the chicken farm. They went to the farm and found a hen-coup full of documents that revealed Iraq had a bio-weapons program. Inspectors on their own--without Iraqi cooperation--may not be able to find anything."

That is Blair's worst fear. Without a smoking gun, and without Powell's support for U.N. backing, the French and Germans will leave him isolated in Europe by highlighting the lack of evidence against Saddam--just as they did at the U.N. this week.

When push comes to shove, there is little doubt that Blair will stand close to Bush and hope, as his aides suggest, that Britain will be flooded by patriotic fervor when the troops go to war.

Yet you can hear the nervousness in the voices of British officials. Will their American friends make a better case for war? Will a smoking gun emerge? Will another act of terrorism convince the world of the need to confront Saddam? When you're as close to the world's only superpower as Blair is to Bush, you may have influence. But you still don't know if your worries will be laid to rest before the shooting starts.

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