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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003

Across the Bush-Briton gap

LONDON -- U.S. President George W. Bush's state visit to Britain ended Nov. 21 with a carefully stage-managed call on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's constituency in the North East of England. The visit went well despite generally peaceful protests. Although there was some of the usual pageantry, the customary drive in an open carriage with the queen was cut because of fears for the president's safety.

Bush was screened from contacts with the British public by a "security bubble" provided by the more than 700 U.S. Secret Service agents who accompanied him, and by a record number of British police mustered at considerable expense. Traffic and life in the capital were disrupted as streets were shut and helicopters buzzed around. This inevitably reduced trade in London shops in the runup to Christmas.

Bush and Blair were regarded by the protesters as responsible for waging war in Iraq in defiance of the United Nations. Many of the protesters, particularly those who toppled an image of Bush in imitation of the way in which a statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, were silly and insensitive. Bush, whether we like him personally and whether we think that he and Blair made the right decisions over Iraq, was our guest and deserved to be treated with the courtesy that the majority of British people showed him. It is impossible to regret the end of Hussein's rule of tyranny -- even if this was not the reason adduced for the attack on Iraq.

The timing of the visit was unfortunate as "coalition forces" in Iraq encounter increasing resistance and as real doubts exist about the strategy and tactics used in Iraq to say nothing of insufficient or mistaken intelligence. Bush, while not apologizing for the attack on Iraq, did use the occasion to make it clear that the United States wants to turn over power to an Iraqi regime sooner rather than later and seeks greater U.N. oversight. To "cut and run" in Iraq, as some critics suggest, would make the situation much worse.

Bush's remarks about the war against terrorism may have sounded less rhetorical after the horrific terrorist attacks in Istanbul, which claimed many lives including that of the British consul general. Blair's response and that of Bush to this tragedy and their determination to continue to do all they can to eradicate al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism reflected the response of most people in Britain.

To suggest, as some irresponsible and ill-informed people have done, that the fighting in Iraq led to these outrages is wrong. Even if the Iraqi war had not taken place, the aftermath of 9/11 and the wholly justified allied attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have made Britain, and indeed every country and people who do not support Islamic fundamentalist beliefs, targets. Turkey with a Muslim population and close relations with both the U.S. and Israel were sadly in the front line.

Blair and Bush clearly get on well personally. Those who know him assert that the president can be both charming and straightforwardly friendly. But he is no match for Blair in public speaking and he often sounds insensitive to the views of others. His reputation as a teetotaling, born-again Christian is out of tune with the British common man. The British public do not respond favorably to Bush-speak and reacted badly to the triumphalism of his dramatic descent onto an aircraft carrier to announce the end of hostilities in Iraq. The fact that casualties since then have increased suggest that this was a seriously flawed gesture.

Personalities aside, there is much more that unites Britain and America than divides them. In particular, both countries share a belief in democracy and human rights and the need to defend these if necessary with force. Britain could well have been defeated in World War II if not for the U.S. Despite common interests, there are significant policy differences that the state visit does not seem to have done much to bridge. Bush spoke of the "special relationship" between Britain and America, demonstrated by official British support for U.S. actions in Iraq, but the British have not seen much return for their support. Some of the main policy differences relate to:

* Human Rights. In British eyes the holding of prisoners -- some of whom are British citizens -- at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without trial or access to family or lawyers is contrary to the basic principle of justice enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and is a blot on the U.S. human rights record. Moreover, the British people support the International Court of Justice and regard U.S. opposition to the court as unjustified. They deplore U.S. bullying tactics in trying to force other countries to exempt U.S. citizens from trial by the court.

* Israel and Palestine. The British support the existence of Israel and utterly abhor anti-Semitism. They also wholeheartedly condemn the terrorist attacks on Israelis by Islamic extremists. They firmly support the "road map" for peace between Israel and Palestine, but want the U.S. to do more to push the process and to restrain the dangerous policies of Israeli extremists. They continue to urge the U.S. to be much more evenhanded.

* U.N. and multilateral policies. Blair has constantly pressed Bush to use U.N. machinery as far as possible and to adopt more multilateral policies. It is not clear whether the apparent modification of U.S. attitudes in recent weeks over Iraq and other issues have been due to Blair's moderating influence or simply to U.S. recognition that in the modern world technological and military supremacy is not enough.

* International Trade. British opinion is concerned by growing U.S. protectionism. U.S. steel tariffs have been condemned by the World Trade Organization. If the president refuses to make concessions on these, there is a real danger of a trade war.

* The environment. In Britain green issues are socially, economically and politically important. America's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol is deplored. On environmental issues, U.S. policies are considered insensitive and selfish.

On these and other issues, Japan generally shares British concerns. We need to continue to work together to try to persuade the U.S. to pay more attention to the views of other countries if only because the U.S., despite its overwhelming might, needs the help and support of others in the fight against terrorism. This may take many years and requires sensitive policies designed to eradicate Islamic grievances and poverty in the Muslim world as well as more effective steps to control the traffic in arms and the flow of funds to terrorists.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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