Bush's trip to Britain comes at bad time

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

WASHINGTON It seems like a colossal case of bad timing on both sides of the Atlantic, a state visit to Britain while both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are mired in slumping approval ratings because of continuing turmoil in Iraq.

Blair stands to lose the most politically from the visit, U.S. and British analysts suggest. Recent polls show a clear majority of British voters think Bush was wrong on Iraq and regard Blair's closeness to the president as bad for Britain.

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

Bush's visit, from Tuesday 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 U.S.-British alliance, the state visit was initiated by Queen Elizabeth II and has been in the planning stages for well over a year. Bush and his wife, Laura, will stay at Buckingham Palace as the queen's guests.

Canceling the visit was never an option, Bush administration officials say.

''You know freedom is a beautiful thing and the fact that people are willing to come out and express themselves says I'm going to a great country,'' Bush told reporters last week.

Blair said that, despite anti-war sentiment in his country, withdrawing from Iraq ''is the worst thing that we could possibly do.''

''I believe this is exactly the right time for him to come,'' Blair asserted.

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 M. Goldgeier, an international politics professor at George Washington University. ''For Bush, there's been no one over the last year as articulate as Blair in explaining why it was important to do what was done in Iraq.''

White House political advisers hope, at least, that images of Bush standing alongside Blair and with the queen amid the pomp and ceremony of a state visit will remind Americans that the United States is not alone in Iraq, that the British are there as well.

Such images, however, may have to compete with far more vivid pictures of street demonstrations, American flag burnings and the planned toppling of a mesh statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square during a ''Stop Bush'' march that organizers predict will draw 60,000 or more demonstrators.

The state visit comes at a particularly sensitive time for the unpopular occupation. Some of the deadliest Iraqi guerrilla attacks yet on coalition forces have prompted the United States to reconsider its long-term strategy in hopes of finding ways to speed a transfer of power to the Iraqis.

''Obviously, the prime minister and the president will have a long time to talk about how to move this all forward,'' said Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Despite assertions of solidarity by both Bush and Blair, there have been some recent strains in the Anglo-American ''special relationship.''

Some frustrated British military officers stationed in Iraq have complained that American military commanders are not paying attention to their concerns.

Meanwhile, Blair has been charting a separate course in pressing for a European Union defense capability apart from NATO, and joining France and Germany in backing a deal to give Iran more access to civilian nuclear technology in exchange for opening itself to nuclear inspections.

Both initiatives have been received coolly in Washington.

Blair and Bush find themselves at odds over U.S. steel tariffs, which the World Trade Organization ruled last week violated international fair-trade rules. And there is sizable public opposition in Britain to plans for the scrapping of four decommissioned U.S. Navy ships contaminated with asbestos and other toxic chemicals in a shipyard in northeastern England.

Blair is under heavy political pressure from his own Labor party to demonstrate more distance from the U.S. president.

The state visit may ''work better for Bush than for Blair,'' even with large anti-Bush street demonstrations, suggested Michael Mandel-baum, a foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins University.

''I don't think the fact that there are some people in Europe that don't approve of American policies is a big electoral liability in the United States,'' Mandelbaum said. ''It never has been in the past.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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