Not So Special

Protests question Bush-Blair lovefest

Ian Williams

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in London on November 20 to speak out against Bush.
The British tabloids once derided Prince Charles for allegedly talking to plants. His eccentricities continue. On November 18 he spoke to a Bush.

It appears, however, that the prince had to be careful what he said to this particular shrub. According to the Guardian, the British Foreign Office has been keeping the heir-apparent away from the United States because his outspoken pro-Palestinian views were considered a threat to the two nations’ “special relationship.”

Even Tony Blair, easily the most pro-Israeli prime minister Britain has had for 50 years, is reportedly miffed because he thought his delivery of British support for the war on Iraq was tied to some serious American pressure on Sharon to deliver on Middle East peace.

There is a self-deprecatory element to British patriotism. Flagwaving and such jingoistic displays are associated with soccer fans. “My country right, or wrong,” is not a common British concept—so it is difficult for many British to accept a prime minister who supports someone else’s country, right or wrong. It was one thing to see Clinton and Blair as ideological chums, both involved in a new political project of getting reelected while stiffing their traditional supporters, but even New Labour is so far to the left of George Bush it makes many British voters wonder what Blair is up to.

The street protests and widespread disillusionment with both governments in Britain are not anti-American. The British are quite prepared to support the United States when they feel it is right. But that same goodwill does not extend to Bush, whom many British believe is arrogant and ignorant.

During the Vietnam War, President Johnson used the IMF and other financial tools to force then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send troops. Wilson, although the pound was tottering toward its last days as a reserve currency, refused, not least because even without British military involvement the protests against the war were on the scale that Tony Blair is now subject to.

Johnson wanted British support then for the same reason Bush wants it now: To provide a multilateral fig leaf for Washington’s essentially unilateral escapade.

So what has Blair gotten out of the presidential visit? On the face of it, one has to look hard to see what Britain gains from sending its troops to die for unpopular causes. For example, the White House did not give Blair any deal on the British detainees in Guantanamo, who according to Blair’s government are being held illegally. Nor does it look likely that Bush will give way on the protective tariffs levied against British steel, despite a WTO ruling that they break international agreements. Events on the ground may have now inclined the White House more toward the British view that the occupation of Iraq needs to be internationalized—but that owes more to the unexpected tenacity of Iraqi fighters and their effect on impending American elections.

Bush’s speeches to the British, as they often do for international audiences, contained all the right noises about multilateralism, democracy and even on the Middle East. But infuriatingly irreverent as the British are to their own leaders, the 100,000-200,000 marchers came out on a working day to protest not just Bush’s presence in Britain but their anger at what he actually does, and their shame that Blair has made their country an accomplice.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, now available from Nation Books.
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