LONDON — When an aging cargo ship from Virginia loaded with toxic waste crawled into Newcastle’s harbor in northeast England last week, Peter Brookes, editorial cartoonist for the Times of London, quickly saw an analogy. He drew President Bush (news – web sites)’s face on the bow, with a sign reading “Highly Toxic.”
Bush doesn’t arrive here until Tuesday evening, but his four-day state visit to Britain already has set off protests and criticism aimed at him and his geo-strategic partner and close friend: Prime Minister Tony Blair (news – web sites).
The trip, planned months ago, was supposed to be a celebration of the Anglo-American alliance following the anticipated triumph of U.S. and British forces in Iraq (news – web sites). Blair’s aides had looked forward to what they called a “Baghdad bounce” in the polls that would restore their leader’s popularity at home. Bush’s aides had relished the chance for the president to present his vision of the war on terrorism on the world stage in the relatively friendly and secure environment of America’s closest ally.
But the escalating violence in Iraq — combined with a series of lingering disputes between the two governments and perceived slights from Washington — has tarnished the glow. The trip has become an opportunity for antiwar protesters to stage three days of demonstrations. One protest leader, Lindsey German, called Bush “the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received.” Critics across the political spectrum here are raising anew questions about Blair’s close partnership with a conservative Republican administration.
“Unless Saddam Hussein (news – web sites) arrives and gives himself up personally to the queen, I can’t see any upside at all for Blair,” said Peter Riddell, author of “Hug Them Close,” a new book about American-British relations. “You’d have to go back to the Vietnam War to find a time when a presidential visit would have been so controversial.”
Many Britons say Bush is taking advantage of his junior partner by coming here for photo ops with Blair and Queen Elizabeth, his official hostess for the visit, to help launch his reelection campaign. Some Democrats, among them Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton White House aide, have chided their counterparts in Blair’s left-of-center Labor Party for bestowing political aid and comfort on a Republican president. But analysts warn that the visit could backfire on Bush.
“I think Americans will be surprised to see the extent of the antipathy toward Bush here,” said James P. Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration who now teaches at the London School of Economics. “When they think of Britain they think Tony Blair, our stalwart ally, and they’re probably not aware that in terms of public opinion Britain is not all that different from the rest of Europe.”
Britain was America’s closest ally before and during the Iraq conflict, thanks largely to Blair’s personal commitment. But a large majority of Britons favored winning U.N. approval before launching military action. Although the public rallied behind British troops during the conflict, support for the war — and for Blair — has plummeted in the months since, especially among members of the ruling Labor Party.
Bush, labeled “the Toxic Texan” by critics here, has never been a popular figure in Britain. A poll last week for the antiwar Daily Mirror newspaper found that three of four Britons surveyed believed Bush’s war on terrorism had made the world a more dangerous place. Things have gotten so bad that commentators noted the high number of compliments Bush paid Blair in a recent interview with British reporters — Riddell counted 15 during the 40-minute session — and warned that each one could further damage Blair’s political standing.
On Sunday, Bush said he was not worried by the prospect of protests during his visit, the Reuters news agency reported from Washington. “No, not concerned at all,” he said. “Glad to be going to a free country where people are allowed to protest.”
Beginning with Harry Truman in 1952, Queen Elizabeth has met every one of the 11 U.S. presidents who have served during her reign. But the invitation to Bush is the first formal state visit ever for an American leader. It came about reportedly through the hard work of U.S. Ambassador William S. Farish, a Bush family friend and major Republican Party donor.
Farish has been all but invisible during his three years here, but maintains close ties to the royal family, due in part to a shared interest in horse racing and breeding — the queen sends mares to Lane’s End, his stud farm in Kentucky, and she reportedly has visited there four times. The trip was first broached 18 months ago, officials said, and final plans were cemented in the spring, just after U.S. and British forces rolled through Iraq.
“They probably thought it would be a victory lap,” Rubin said.
Already, officials say, the trip has been a planning nightmare. Bush and his wife, Laura, are scheduled to spend the first two nights at Buckingham Palace in the heart of London, and the Secret Service (news – web sites) has demanded that a large area be sealed off to protect the president from potential terrorists and from the 100,000 or so demonstrators expected to protest in the streets. About 250 armed Secret Service agents have been assigned to supplement Scotland Yard’s extensive forces. But the queen reportedly vetoed, as too noisy, plans for a Black Hawk helicopter to hover over Buckingham Palace.
Polls indicate that many Britons resent the planned show of force, the potential disruption and the estimated $10 million bill for presidential security. But there is much deeper resentment stemming from the widespread sense that Blair has gotten little but grief from a relationship that, viewed from here, looks increasingly one-sided.
While insisting publicly that relations have never been better, British officials privately keep a laundry list of complaints about the Bush administration, beginning with Iraq itself — both the run-up to the war and the aftermath. The British had pushed behind the scenes for more time for U.N. weapons inspectors to complete their task before taking military action, but say they were overruled by impatient hawks in the White House and Pentagon (news – web sites).
After the initial fighting ended, they proposed maintaining the Iraqi army, albeit under a different command structure, and pressed for a faster handover to local authorities. Most of all, they have complained that they are seldom consulted, much less heeded, by U.S. officials despite having 10,000 troops on the ground in southern Iraq.
There are other sources of tension, from the ongoing detention without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of nine British nationals suspected of terrorism, to Washington’s alarm over British involvement in the new European Union (news – web sites) defense project and the Bush administration’s effective abandonment of the “road map” diplomatic initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has also viewed critically a British-French-German effort to negotiate an end to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Apprised of Europe’s carrot-and-stick approach to Iran, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton mockingly told a recent seminar here, “I don’t do carrots.”
In all of these areas, British officials complain they have gotten little or no support from Washington. “The feeling is that every time something really matters, Blair has to go and beg personally for it,” said Bronwen Maddox, foreign affairs columnist for the Times. “There have been a lot of bruises this year.”
Blair, as always, has put the most positive face on the Bush visit, insisting in a recent speech that “this is exactly the right time for him to come.”
“The first thing you learn in politics is that those that protest the most or shout the loudest aren’t necessarily entirely representative of the whole of opinion,” he said in an interview last week. “Most people in this country, I believe, are immensely proud of the American alliance and support it.”
The queen and the president have met before, most famously in 1991 during his father’s administration when he made her smile by wearing cowboy boots stamped with “God Save the Queen” during her visit to the White House. U.S. and British officials are hoping his quirky charm, combined with his deeply held belief that he is protecting the world from rogue states and terrorism, will somehow capture hearts and minds here.
“The president cannot back down from this fight,” said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you don’t address the issue, then the argument goes by default to the other side. And this is still the best European capital, the best environment, to make the case.”