Tue, Nov 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Bush in the UK: the tour from hell no one wants

'NO END OF TROUBLE' George W. Bush's trip to Britain is more headache than tonic for British officials, and even US officials are worried about his reception


In public, the British government says it is delighted George Bush is visiting Britain next week. Tony Blair encapsulated this in a speech on Monday last week when he said: "I believe this is exactly the right time for him to come."

In the corridors of No 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's office, a more realistic assessment can be heard. One insider, contemplating the visit, expressed exasperation: "That man seems to cause us no end of trouble, doesn't he?"

The list of issues is long -- from the Kyoto pollution agreement through to Guantanamo and Iraq -- and now added to it is the row over steel tariffs. At a Whitehall briefing it was not Iraq that topped the list of issues on the urgent agenda for the president and prime minister but the fate of British steelworkers. "A trade war will help nobody," an official said.

Nor will the protests during the presidential visit help Blair or Bush. The trip has turned into one that no one wants, despite what Bush said on Sunday. He claimed he was not upset about the prospect of protesters because "freedom is a beautiful thing." Speaking on British TV, he said: "So Laura and I are really looking forward to coming."

That does not square with what US officials, like their counterparts in Whitehall, are saying. One official described it as the trip from hell.

When preparations were being made months ago the expectation in Washington had been that it would be a victory trip, with Iraq relatively stable and its elusive weapons of mass destruction unearthed. What had not been anticipated was the present chaos and mounting death toll.

Bush is to fly into London tonight for the first state visit since President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, whose path was strewn with roses by a people grateful for his help during the war.

There will be no such public welcome for Bush, and protesters will dog his path until he leaves on Friday.

TV pictures of Bush with the Queen were supposed to provide useful footage for a president seeking re-election next year.

But US officials know that any royal benefit will be offset by damaging images of protests.

The visit also undoes the efforts of Blair to switch the agenda to domestic issues. Since the Hutton inquiry finished in September, the prime minister has gone out of his way to reduce his involvement in foreign affairs. But the image this week will be a revival of Blair as Bush's poodle. Such is the sensitivity on the British side over this that officials advised against an innocent ceremony in which Bush was to have handed over a Congressional gold medal awarded to Blair in July.

Since World War II, British prime ministers have cultivated US presidents. Blair and Bill Clinton have been among the closest. But Bush has become more of a foreign policy soul mate for a prime minister with a Gladstonian zeal for humanitarian intervention than Clinton ever was. The question is whether Blair wants to retain the relationship or whether it would be expedient to put some distance between himself and Bush once this week is over.

It is also a question being asked on the other side of the Atlantic by those advisers who have not forgiven Blair for what they see as leading the US into the UN debacle over Iraq.

There is no shortage of existing irritants in the transatlantic relationship. British military officers privately complain that US heavy-handedness in Iraq is hurting the coalition's attempts to get a grip on security. Attempts by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to win special treatment for nine Britons detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay have met stern resistance from the Pentagon. Bush's tariffs on European steel have been ruled illegal by the WTO. Meanwhile, the US is deeply suspicious of European moves towards a common defense policy forum.

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