A Gathering Storm

George W. Bush has a clear picture in mind of an ideal world leader and ally. Soon after his Inauguration, Bush asked the British Embassy in Washington for a bust of Winston Churchill. And when it came to staging his first meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush chose a humble wooden cabin called Holly at Camp David--the scene of talks between Churchill and Roosevelt as they planned the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Europe. "He really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me," Bush said of Churchill, as he promised to place the bronze bust under his favorite west Texas painting in the Oval Office. "He wasn't afraid of public-opinion polls. He charged ahead, and the world is better for it."

Since that first Camp David session with Blair, and particularly since September 11, Bush has repeatedly invoked the memory of Churchill. But now that Bush is charging ahead against Saddam Hussein, the British prime minister isn't acting quite like The Last Lion. While Bush says "time is running out on Saddam Hussein" and that he's "sick and tired of games and deception," Blair says he wants to give the U.N. weapons inspectors more "time and space" in Iraq. Bush thinks another U.N. resolution is unnecessary. Yet Blair wants U.N. approval before going to war in Iraq. British officials tell NEWSWEEK that Bush and Blair have not spoken since the New Year, even as tensions have steadily built with Iraq and North Korea.

So is the special relationship starting to fray? Look at the vastly different reaction to the discovery of 11 empty chemical warheads in Iraq. While the White House called the warheads "troubling and serious," British officials warned against any "rush to judgment." Other allies are even more reluctant to side with Bush. In Paris, President Jacques Chirac warned that only the U.N. Security Council had the authority to assess the inspectors' findings (and not the Americans on their own, he suggested). Meanwhile the Turkish government--a crucial staging post for military operations against Iraq--launched its own diplomatic offensive last week to avoid war. On a tour of Middle East capitals, Turkish officials pushed a Saudi plan to offer amnesty to Iraqi officials who might oust Saddam. In a world full of fair-weather friends, Bush needs Blair to stick to his guns.

All this puts Blair in an awkward--and highly visible--position. As U.S. troops flood into Kuwait, Blair is both an object of hope and a source of frustration. He is America's closest ally, but also the only leader judged to have the trust and standing with President Bush to slow (or even redirect) Washington's march toward war.

The two leaders will meet next week at --Camp David again, just four days after the United Nations hears the first major report by weapons inspectors on Iraq. While much of the talk is expected to focus on Iraq, senior British officials tell news-week that Blair will also deliver an uncomfortable message to Bush: you must do more in the Middle East to win Arab support. While the Bush administration has stepped up pressure on Saddam Hussein in recent months, it has also slowed down the diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supposedly waiting for Israeli elections next week. It's no coincidence that the British staged a conference on Palestinian reform in London last week, "to fill a very dangerous vacuum," according to one senior U.K. official.

The way in which the Bush administration has slowly dribbled out intelligence to weapons inspectors in Iraq is also a source of friction. While the United States started handing over snippets of intelligence to Hans Blix only this month, the British hoped to help the inspectors uncover Iraq's secret weapons stash far earlier. "There's no point in going down the U.N. route if we shut it down just two weeks after giving them intelligence," says one British official.

Yet the Brits have also frustrated their friends in Washington by making their own missteps in recent days. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, told the BBC that the chances of going to war had fallen from 60 percent to 40 percent. Secretary of State Colin Powell responded sharply, saying he would never allow anyone to get him to quote odds on war. Then there was Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the United Nations, who predicted "a series of reports" from weapons inspectors after the end of January. That was utterly discordant with the message the Bush administration was putting out. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national-security adviser, traveled to New York last week to persuade Blix to drop the idea of reporting again at the end of March.

In Blair's mind, the inspectors need more time because his government needs more time--to win over members of his own left-of-center Labour Party, a skeptical British public and a downright hostile set of allies in Europe and the Arab world. "We are just trying to make sure there is the credible evidence required for a second U.N. resolution and for an international coalition," says one Blair aide. "Either the inspectors will find that evidence or they'll be blocked looking for it."

Bush administration officials don't think they need a second U.N. resolution, and they also seem confident that Blair will be there when the fighting starts, regardless. On both sides of the Atlantic, there's a belief that if the war ends well--as both Washington and London firmly believe it will--Blair will be lauded for his boldness. "We read about the Labour Party concerns," says one senior U.S. official. "It's tough politics. Frankly, my reaction was: these guys are taking a courageous stance and showing some real leadership."

In fact, it's at those times when Blair confronts his fellow Brits that he sounds most like Bush's dream prime minister. "It's easy to be anti-American," Blair told his traditionally anti-American party in October. "There's a lot of it about. But remember when and where this alliance was forged: here in Europe, in World War II, when Britain and America and every decent citizen in Europe joined forces to liberate Europe from the Nazi evil." The ghost of Churchill lives. But in making his case for a war alliance today, Blair will need to offer his countrymen more than nostalgia. He'll need some concessions from Bush.

A Gathering Storm | News