Blair’s Bind: Convincing Bush to Mend Fences

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

March 31, 2003

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On day five of the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to meet President George Bush at Camp David with an ambitious agenda in hand. There was, of course, the war to discuss now that progress toward Saddam Hussein’s ouster appeared to be going less well than expected.

But Blair’s main concern in making the trip was to discuss what he delicately called the “diplomatic implications of recent events for the future.” The diplomacy prior to the war had been a mess, and Blair wanted to get an early start on repairing the damage. He was going to meet Bush, Blair said before flying off, to talk about three issues: “how we get America and Europe working again together as partners, and not as rivals;…how we rebuild Iraq post-Saddam; and also of course our approach to the Middle East peace process.”

Unfortunately, none of these issues was on Bush’s agenda. This became clear during the press conference that followed their meeting. Instead of Blair’s issues, the two war leaders emphasized their determination to oust Saddam—”however long it takes,” Bush insisted.

Blair’s failure to gain Bush’s assurance that he will make a diplomatic investment after the war as large as his military investment in it reflects in part the White House’s preoccupation with prosecuting a war that is turning out to be much less of a cakewalk than many officials had hoped—and not a few expected. This is an administration that sets clear priorities, and winning is now priority one. Figuring out how to win the peace—let alone getting relations with key allies back on track—is something that can wait.

But it isn’t just a matter of differing priorities. There are real differences between Bush and Blair concerning the three issues Blair sought to raise at Camp David. Not only does this make their resolution less likely, but it profoundly complicates Blair’s position at home and as major European player—and threatens to isolate the United States even more than it is today.

Take the issue of U.S.-European relations. There is little denying that these relations have been deeply—and negatively—affected by the Iraq debate. France and Germany remain adamantly opposed to the war, as do vast majorities of European publics (even in those countries whose governments are counted as part of the “coalition of the willing”). At one point last week, the French Foreign Minister even refused to say which side he wanted to win the war (though at other times he has supported the U.S. and Britain). Such attitudes from what still are allied nations have fueled significant hostility, especially toward France, in the United States, including within the administration.

Blair, who sees himself as the bridge between the United States and Europe, is accordingly being stretched to the breaking point. He needs Bush, as well as the leaders of France and Germany, to rise above their differences. But there is little indication that Bush is prepared to show the magnanimity that this requires—nor that Jacques Chirac or Gerhard Schroeder are prepared to come to Washington to declare fealty to Bush’s mission in Iraq. Failing that, the transatlantic gap will continue to grow, leaving Blair with very little to hold on to.

Responsibility for post-Saddam Iraq is another issue likely to create tension between Bush and Blair in the days and weeks ahead. Having failed to secure a UN resolution authorizing the war, Blair is fully committed to ensuring the UN is “centrally involved” in Iraq after the war. “It is important that whatever administration takes over in Iraq, that that has the authority of the UN behind it,” Blair declared.

But that is easier said than done, given the deep divisions within the Security Council. While Bush would welcome a UN resolution endorsing the administrative arrangements the victors in the war plan to set up, the UN Security Council majority that is against the war is unlikely to legitimize it after the fact. Since Bush will not negotiate the post-war administrative structure with those who opposed the war, Blair will again be left in a bind.

And then there is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Blair did succeed in getting Bush to commit again to publishing the “roadmap” for resolving the conflict at Camp David. But Blair wants more. Like all of Europe, he wants Bush to exert America’s considerable leverage to deliver Ariel Sharon to the peace table, ready to make the concessions most Europeans deem necessary for peace to become a reality. Blair is bound to be disappointed. Bush not only faces reelection next year, but he believes that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who need to make the concessions necessary for peace.

On every one of these issues—U.S.-European relations, post-war Iraq, and the peace process—Blair will likely find himself very much on his own. Which underscores a larger point: even as these two leaders are joined together in fighting this war, it is clear they have a very different view of the world within which it is being fought. Unless bridged, that difference is sooner or later bound to lead them onto divergent paths.