The Washington Times

LONDON. – The question on this side of the pond boils down to this: What is Tony Blair getting out of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States?

In the United States, the British prime minister is as popular in that role as Margaret Thatcher at her peak – and possibly more so, in that Mrs. T was largely a conservative taste, whereas Mr. B’s appeal cuts across party and ideological lines. If the United States, in this time of extraordinary political unity in the war against terror, were to get into the propaganda poster business again, the first one would surely show the Labour Party prime minister pointing his finger at the world under the legend, “TONY BLAIR WANTS YOU to support the United States.” Against the dourness of the Germans or the Frenchness of the French, the solidarity and enthusiasm of Mr. Blair are irresistible to Americans – even if they are a little hard for Brits to figure out.

Because in truth, they do think they know the answer to what Mr. Blair gets out of the special relationship: not much. In that sense, there was a certain ruefulness to the tone of one of my London interlocutors in observing that French President Jacques Chirac would never attend a speech by an American president before a joint session of Congress, even to receive a thundering ovation.

For many in London, the question comes down to this: Is there special influence on U.S. policy that Mr. Blair enjoys as a result of the “special relationship”? Another of my interlocutors in London (a journalist) put the question in the form of an interesting hypothetical: Suppose Mr. Blair advised Mr. Bush not to move against Iraq. (Mr. Blair has, in fact, expressed hesitation on expanding the war to Baghdad.) What effect would that have on Mr. Bush’s thinking?

The answer, I think, is not much. This piece of advice would be one among many competing for influence with Mr. Bush. If the president decided for himself that it would be ill-advised to address by military means Saddam Hussein’s persistent efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, then he might well cite Mr. Blair’s advice in support of his decision. But if Mr. Bush was determined to go ahead against Saddam, Mr. Blair’s view to the contrary would not dissuade. The president might use Mr. Blair if Mr. Bush found the prime minister useful, but in no case would the Brit’s advice be dispositive.

Suppose, to refine the hypothetical, as my interlocutor then did, that Mr. Bush was getting advice against moving on Iraq not only from Mr. Blair but also from Secretary of State Colin Powell? Would the two in combination be a more powerful voice than Mr. Powell’s alone? Yes, they would – but again, not dispositive, I think. The case against Iraq is also well-vested within the administration, and I don’t think anyone can be fairly said to have decisive sway in the formulation of Mr. Bush’s views. The president will decide.

Suppose, then, that Mr. Blair, in response to Mr. Bush’s desire to press ahead against Iraq, advised the president that the United States might be better served by moving next against terror organizations in such smaller countries as Somalia or Sudan, the better to gather world opinion and avoid prematurely confronting the anti-terror coalition with the hard case of Iraq. That’s more interesting – Mr. Blair as a conduit to Mr. Bush on the nuances of world opinion. This is the level at which a number of Brits I talked to think their prime minister acquires a measure of clout with the U.S. administration.

Surely they are right. But actually, as in this case, to the point of being able to shift the U.S. focus from Iraq to somewhere else? I don’t think so. Again, if, say, Mr. Bush had reservations about being ready to turn against Iraq and thought another appropriate mission would buy him the time he needed, then he would surely invoke Mr. Blair’s view. But not much more.

What about the “special relationship,” then? Well, it is special, but maybe not in a way that is illuminated by probing the nuances of influence. Because this is not, in the end, a relationship between equally powerful countries, any more than U.S. relations with anyone else. The United States is perfectly willing to work with other countries, and indeed, U.S. and British military forces are working together quite well now. But in general, neither the Bush nor any other administration will be able or willing to look at the world and what the United States should do in it through any prism other than that of the reality of U.S. power.

No, the relationship is special because, confronted with the events of September 11, the British prime minister and the American president independently reached essentially the same conclusion about what to do in response. Others followed the U.S. lead. Mr. Blair did not; he didn’t need a U.S. signal to know where he was going. Whatever else may have been on his mind (and London is humming with speculation about various hidden agendas), I think it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that he said what he said because he believes it. No wonder Americans love him.