For the image-conscious Bush White House, this week's trip to Britain for visits with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth could prove more than a bit touchy. In a sign of...
WASHINGTON For the image-conscious Bush White House, this week’s trip to Britain for visits with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth could prove more than a bit touchy.
In a sign of Bush’s unpopularity in parts of Europe and in a country he regards as enjoying a “special relationship” with the United States as many as 100,000 Britons are expected to take to the streets to register their vociferous disapproval of Bush and the Iraq war. At Trafalgar Square, they will topple a Bush effigy in an act reminiscent of the leveling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, in April.
The president, who will fly to London today with his wife, Laura, is not oblivious to the frosty reception that lurks beyond the official “bubble” that will surround him throughout his three-day visit, which was planned 17 months ago.
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In an interview with British journalists last week, Bush playfully predicted that not all Britons waving at him in the coming days would be doing so “with all five fingers.”
Yet images of a besieged U.S. president in London the capital of America’s steadiest ally would be no laughing matter, said some analysts, who warned that antiwar protests there could further energize opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy at home, where doubts about the war are growing.
“I don’t see how this trip helps President Bush any,” said Steven Hess, a senior political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, said the trip “will prove of less use for Karl Rove (the president’s chief political strategist) than for Howard Dean,” referring to the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination who has been highly critical of the Iraq war.
Bush appears undaunted by the prospects of massive demonstrations.
“I am so pleased to be going to a country which says that people are allowed to express their mind. That’s fantastic. 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,” he said at the White House last week. “I don’t expect everybody in the world to agree with the positions I’ve taken. But certainly, those should agree with the goals of the United States, which is peace and freedom.”
There will be no speech to Parliament. In his only address during the state visit, Bush plans to speak tomorrow about the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance while lauding the U.S.-British friendship.
Bush also is to meet with British soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as with selected family members of those who died there. He said he would share with them his own “deep grief, my sorrow” but also tell them that “their loved ones did not die in vain.”
The president’s only real encounter with average citizens will come during a visit to Blair’s home district, when a few of Blair’s constituents will join the leaders for lunch.
At the same time, Bush’s visit might simply remind Blair of the price he is paying for supporting the war in Iraq.
Blair’s approval rating has slumped since British troops were committed to the U.S.-led war. Some of his own lawmakers have accused him of being Bush’s “poodle,” and recent polls suggested a majority of Britons disapproved of their “special relationship” with the United States.
“It is a disgrace that Tony Blair is once again ignoring public opinion to entertain his friend at our expense,” reads a campaign leaflet printed by the Stop the War Coalition, which has organized a Thursday march through central London.
Trying to deflect attention from Iraq, Blair’s recent public appearances have been dominated by visits to schools, hospitals and public-housing complexes.
In this context, Bush’s “arrival is about as appropriate as the appearance of a stripper at a wedding,” The Guardian newspaper said in a Saturday editorial.
Bush is aware of Blair’s predicament and heaped praise on him in a round of interviews last week.
“He’s plenty independent,” Bush said. “If he thought the policy that we have both worked on was wrong, he’d tell me. He tells you what he thinks, and he does what he says he’s going to do.
“And that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay a fellow leader.”
Blair protested his independence Sunday, writing in a newspaper that he and Bush have had differences.
“Where Britain’s national interests are best served by airing them publicly as for instance over our different positions on global warming or steel tariffs I don’t hesitate to do it,” Blair wrote in the News of the World.
“And where behind-the-scenes diplomacy works best, I talk frankly in private to President Bush as I do to other leaders. But I welcome this visit because it’s more important than ever to underline that our two countries share the same values, the same love of freedom and determination to build a safer world.”
Blair might exhibit that independent streak in discussions with Bush on Israel. The prime minister is likely to implore the president to up the pressure on the Israelis and the Palestinians to return to a “road map” peace plan that has been derailed by violence. The Bush administration backed the plan, but it backed off from direct involvement when the Palestinian Cabinet collapsed in September after a wave of violence.
Blair also has supported a European Union defense capability separate from NATO, and joined France and Germany in backing a deal that would give Iran more access to civilian nuclear technology in exchange for opening itself to nuclear inspections. The Bush administration has given both of these initiatives a cool reception.
Material from Knight Ridder Newspapers and Newhouse News Service is included in this report.