Diplomatic Diary: The Price Of Friendship

If it was hard to put a price on Turkey's cooperation in the coming war in Iraq, how do you put a price on Tony Blair's cooperation with George W. Bush?

That is the cold calculation facing the White House as it enters the diplomatic endgame surrounding Saddam Hussein's regime. Turkey famously extracted a promise of $6 billion to allow 62,000 U.S. troops onto its territory with the aim of launching a northern offensive against Iraq. And while that figure has so far failed to win the Turkish parliament's support, it begs a tougher question for President Bush's advisers: how much to spend on the Brits?

At this stage, almost every step of United Nations negotiations--and almost every presidential phone call to world leaders--is an attempt by Bush to pay the British prime minister in a different sort of currency for the so-called special relationship with London. It's no secret that Blair, faced with a steady decline in his polls, a parliamentary rebellion and huge public demonstrations, sorely needs a second United Nations resolution justifying an invasion of Iraq in order to help win over a skeptical British public. It's also no secret that Bush disdains a second resolution, which he believes is unnecessary to justify an invasion of Iraq. So the time and effort that Bush spends on this final U.N. resolution is, in effect, the only significant way he can compensate Blair for his huge political gamble.

That's what makes the current diplomatic crisis so telling. The calculation to go for a second resolution was based on the notion that it would be relatively easy to win international support. Administration officials concocted a harmless resolution with their British and Spanish counterparts, in the hope that its simplicity would guarantee its success. Who could possibly vote against the notion that "Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in resolution 1441"?

The answer, as it turned out, was everyone else on the Security Council. Far from crumbling in the face of diplomatic genius, the administration's critics have dug in deeper. "I think the nine votes are far from in the bag," admits one senior British official. "It's going to be very, very difficult." And the more difficult it gets to put those votes in the bag, the higher the cost--in terms of the energy and political capital spent by Bush--of Blair's support.

At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer was entangled in that calculation this week. First he suggested to reporters that the administration would seek a vote on the new resolution regardless of whether the votes were there to support it. Then he returned to the briefing room to say that a vote was merely "desirable" and that the Security Council would be given "the opportunity to say what they think and to act." Nobody at the White House wants to pay so much in political capital for a dismal failure at the United Nations.

So just how long is the Bush administration prepared to work for the new resolution? Long enough to allow Saddam the wiggle room to convince the world he is already disarming? Long enough for the French and Germans to drum up more support for their alternative plans to beef up inspections? Long enough to delay the military action in Iraq? Even British officials believe they have no more than a week or two after the U.N. weapons inspectors deliver their next report at the end of this week. That does not look long enough to win the nine votes they need in the Security Council.

That leaves Blair's aides carving out some interesting wiggle room of their own, as they head towards what looks like an imminent failure at the U.N. Speaking to BBC radio this week, one of Blair's closest political allies at home--former minister Peter Mandelson--suggested in public what Downing Street officials have only said in private: that Blair is struggling because of Bush himself.

"The problem we have is that whereas people are on balance prepared to give Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt, people in Britain and Europe unfortunately are less prepared to do that in the case of George Bush," says Mandelson. "I think that's quite an issue. I wouldn't say he's Mr. Blair's greatest asset."

In public, both sides refuse to be anything but "relentlessly upbeat", in the words of one senior Bush administration official. But the current strains are increasingly revealing how the two leaders have long moved along different paths and sent out distinctly different messages. Take their public sales pitch for confronting Iraq. For Bush, it seems like a personal struggle against Saddam's defiance. "It's up to Mr Saddam Hussein to do what the entire world has asked him to do," Bush said in Scranton, Pennsylvania, last month. For Blair, it's a question of terrorists and the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Blair insists he raised the issue with Bush before the 9-11 attacks at their first meeting at Camp David. That threat seemed all the more real with the raids on a series of terrorist suspects linked to the discovery of the deadly poison ricin in London.

That kind of distance reflects deep personal and political differences in style and substance between Blair and Bush. It was Blair, according to British officials, who pressed the president to deliver some fresh commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute last week. Blair, his aides suggest, is far keener to bring peace to the Middle East--and put pressure on the Israeli government to compromise--than Bush.

But that wiggle room will disappear when British forces join American troops in the invasion of Iraq. Then, the debate over who lost the United Nations--and who pushed hardest for peace in the Middle East--will become irrelevant. For Bush and Blair, the only calculation that will count is the scale of victory--or frustration--on the battlefield.

Diplomatic Diary: The Price Of Friendship | News