Don't Hug So Close, Mr Blair; When Tony Blair Welcomes George Bush to London on Wednesday, He Must Speak out without Fear of Straining the 'Special Relationship'

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Byline: PETER RIDDELL

TONY Blair has no second thoughts, doubts or reservations. He will not hear any criticism of George W Bush, in either public or private. I have often heard Blair say about Bush: "He has always been straightforward and open with me." So the President will be a welcome guest to London this week.

Blair brushes aside the political and diplomatic costs of his close alliance with Bush over Iraq as if they do not exist, even though they threaten his European strategy, as well as being unpopular.

Blair's determination to stick by Bush is not just courtesy. It is also a deep-seated political strategy. Well before Bush became President, Blair had adopted what one of his closest advisers calls the "hug them close" approach, or what critics like Robin Cook have dubbed a Faustian bargain. In return for public support, and above all the absence of public criticism, Blair has the ear of the President.

Bush has been effusive in his pre-visit interviews about how much he values the advice of his "friend Tony". But the benefits are harder to identify.

The Anglo-American relationship is inherently lopsided: the farthing in the penny-farthing of the Anglo-American alliance, as Douglas Hurd has vividly put it.

Moreover, all presidents, not just Bush, take their decisions on the basis of American interests first.

Blair took a high-stakes gamble last year: that action against Iraq would win broad international support, that weapons of mass destruction would be found, that the removal of Saddam would produce a more stable Iraq, and that a quick war would lead to fresh momentum in the Middle East peace process.

The gamble has not paid off.

True, the war was relatively brief, and conditions in much of Iraq are better than the nightly pictures of bombings and killings indicate. But the Pentagon's plans for post-war Iraq have been shown to be inadequate.

Moreover, the British public has become steadily more hostile to the military action and critical of the reasons which Blair made for going to war.

Blair now brushes aside the doubts as merely "hindsight".

Much effort has gone into producing positive news for this week's visit - a few contracts for British companies in Iraq, some conciliatory gestures on the EU/US steel dispute, emphasis on areas of bilateral agreement such as help for Africa, and lots of lots of warm words about how much Tony and George trust and admire each other.

BUT there has been no real quid or buck pro quo for Blair. His advisers were hoping for support from Washington over the proposals for closer European defence co-operation produced by Britain, France and Germany. As Blair pointed out last week, his "credentials on the transatlantic alliance, I would hope, after the past two years, are reasonably sound".

But no - Nicholas Burns, the American Ambassador to Nato, intervened to protest in the strongest terms. And Bush has merely referred lukewarmly to Blair's personal assurances.

None of that helps Blair to make the case for Britain and America to work together to deal with security threats from terrorism and failed states. On Blair's view, Britain should influence the US "to continue broadening their agenda. …