How Blair Made a Deal with Bush: The PM Has Become a Hostage to the US. His Future Depends on Americans Keeping Their Promises. (Bloody War/London)

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

How Blair Made a Deal with Bush: The PM Has Become a Hostage to the US. His Future Depends on Americans Keeping Their Promises. (Bloody War/London)


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


As the tanks in Kuwait moved to the front line, Tony Blair secured his position back home. The rebellion in the Commons was the biggest in parliamentary memory, but such are the times, that it was portrayed as a "victory" for the Prime Minister. The House of Commons had had its moment. It had used it well.

The default prediction is that a successful war will leave Blair either more powerful than ever or relatively unscathed. But the first will not happen. After the mistakes and miscalculations of the past months, he will no longer enjoy the hegemony of his early years. Our political system will be more robust for that. And even if the military operation goes "well", Blair will become a hostage to forces out of his control.

Senior diplomatic and government figures have told me that Blair struck an explicit deal with George W Bush in those desperate days leading up to war. Hours before the US president announced on 14 March that he was willing to publish the "road map" -- a step-by-step process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 -- Blair's people told the White House the Prime Minister's very survival depended on it.

Bush had already gone reluctantly along, at least for a while, with Britain's frantic search for a second UN resolution. But the Blairites told their American counterparts that Palestine was just as important. Bush has talked before about a Palestinian state; this time, the Americans were told, he had to mean it. "If Bush reneges on the road map, Tony could be finished," one minister told me. Ranged against him, however, are two figures hostile to him and his vision of the world--Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. The body language between Bush and Blair at their summit in the Azores was, according to one official, "correct". Nothing more.

These exchanges formed the backdrop for the most telling part of Blair's speech to the Commons on 18 March. "Partners are not servants, but neither are they rivals," he told MPs. The next passage was addressed to Europe, but Blair was actually talking about himself. "What Europe should have said last September to the United States is this: 'we understand your strategic anxiety over terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and we will help you meet it. We will mean what we say in any UN resolution we pass and will back it with action'. However, in return, Europe should have said: 'we ask two things of you: that the US should indeed choose the UN path and you should recognise the fundamental overriding importance of restarting the Middle East peace process, which we will hold you to'." He was admitting that while he had pressed Bush to deal with the Likudniks in Washington and Jerusalem, he had not pressed him hard enough.

This broad commitment was instrumental in persuading Glare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to stay on. Blair told her, as she searched her conscience, that progress in the Middle East would on this occasion be for real. Just as Blair took Bush at his word, so she took Blair at his. By the time Blair saw Robin Cook, his former foreign secretary was not for persuading. His is a less sanguine assessment of future US priorities. If Cook's view is correct, Blair will have won himself time but only stored up more trouble for himself further down the line. The anti-war movement in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the bulk of it at least, will now go quiet as "our boys" go into battle. "We will swallow very hard," one said, "and hope that our worst fears don't come true." But that silence may not last for long.

It was a "tragedy", Blair told the Commons, the country and himself, that this had not h appened. "I do not believe that there is any other issue with the same power to reunite the world community than progress on the issues of Israel and Palestine. Of course, there is cynicism about recent announcements, but the United States is now committed -- and, I believe genuinely -- to the road map for peace designed in consultation with the UN .

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