Perspective: Friendship Is . . . Facing the Music Together; George Bush Is Flying in to Meet His Good Friend Tony Blair This Week. but, as Chief Feature Writer Paul Groves Discovers, It Could Be Monumentally Bad Timing for Two Normally Slick Operators

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Groves

The US President will welcome the sight of protesters on the street criticising his hard-line stance when he arrives in Britain tomorrow.

George W Bush realises not everyone agrees with his policies and maintains such demonstrations are the best possible indication of a healthy democracy -the fight for which lies at the heart of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet cynics suggest Mr Bush is merely getting in some much-needed practice. The Teflon president is experiencing something new -criticism at home and some of it is starting to stick.

These same observers claim that the Anglo-US summit is also an example of some of the worst political timing of recent history. Two leaders who should be doing more to bolster their domestic popularity, continue to straddle the world stage and re-open the wounds that have led to the fierce criticism both are currently facing.

Despite the warnings made to Mr Bush, many believe it is the British Prime Minister who has most to lose in political terms from the visit.

Recent polls show a clear majority of voters think Bush was wrong on Iraq and regard Blair's closeness to the president as bad for Britain.

But it is also hard to see what benefit Bush can claim by offering a fresh reminder that he and Blair marched together against most of the world in deciding to invade Iraq.

Bush's state visit, from tomorrow to Friday, is becoming a magnet for protesters from all over Europe, with tens of thousands of demonstrators expected to take to the streets.

Originally intended to be a sparkling celebration of the 'special friendship', the visit was initiated by the Queen and has been in the planning stages for well over a year.

The President and his wife, Laura, will stay at Buckingham Palace as the Queen's guests. Under these circumstances, cancelling the visit was never an option.

But Bush is likely to get a lot more out of the visit than Blair. Buffeted by criticism about Iraq from other world leaders, Bush has found comfort in Blair's stalwart support.

'Bush needs to make sure he's still got Tony Blair there supporting him,' said James Goldgeier, an international politics professor at George Washington University. …