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Last Updated:  Sunday, 16 March, 2003, 08:19 GMT
'Moment of Truth' in the Azores

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The carefully choreographed meeting in the Azores between George Bush, Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar is, in effect, a council of war.

Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice: The "moment of truth"
Officially, the line is that it will examine the possibility of taking diplomacy forward, and it could be that the Security Council will be offered one last and brief chance to reach agreement.

Another proposal is that Saddam Hussein should be given a chance to go into exile or face war. The White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "There is still time for Saddam Hussein to see the writing on the wall and to get out of Iraq."

His reference to the "writing on the wall" was particularly apt. It comes from a story in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which Belshazzar saw writing predicting his doom appear on the wall during a feast.

He was overthrown and killed that same night. Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, conqueror of Jerusalem and builder of Babylon and a king to whom Saddam Hussein compares himself.

But the reality is that Saddam Hussein is digging in, the Council negotiations are getting nowhere, the United States is running out of patience, and "the moment of truth", as Mr Bush's National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice put it, is at hand.

What "the moment of truth" means is the abandoning of the attempts to get the elusive second resolution and taking a decision to go to war.

Such an announcement would need extremely delicate handling, especially by Mr Blair, who would have to explain why, despite his confident predictions, there was to be no new resolution and why war would be legal.

Which is why this summit has been so carefully arranged.

It did not actually have to be held at all - the telephone would have done just as well for decision-making.

But consider the presentational advantages of the format for all concerned, particularly the British prime minister.

By choosing the mid-Atlantic setting of the Azores, Tony Blair does not have to be seen running to the White House; Mr Bush tries to show that he is not directing it all from Washington; Mr Aznar gets his reward for co-sponsoring the resolution and provides another European figure to demonstrate that Britain is not alone on its side of the ocean.

War 'not far off'

And to further point up the co-ordinated nature of these events, there was the sudden announcement by Mr Bush on Friday that he was going to release the long delayed "road map" for negotiations leading to a Palestinian state.

White House officials were even saying that the soon to be appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, would be received by the President in due course.

Thus the exposed flank of the American-British position was covered.

Mr Bush's weekly radio address on Saturday added another indication that war is not far off.

It was not the language of diplomacy... it was preparing people for war
It was not the language of diplomacy - it was the language of preparing people for war.

"We must recognise that some threats are so grave that they must be removed, even if it requires military force," he said.

"Governments are now showing whether their stated commitment to liberty and security are words alone - or convictions they are prepared to act upon."

Mr Aznar, whose right-wing views have made him a willing ally in this crisis, added his own comment:

'Not morally acceptable'

"Not acting to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction is neither politically nor morally acceptable," he said.

Spain, though, has sent no troops to help enforce this principle.

The UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who will be reluctant to admit that there will be a war until five minutes before it happens, has said that it is now "more probable".
US troops in Kuwait
American troops are ready to go

With such words being uttered in advance, there appears to be little doubt about the outcome.

Indeed, we learn that the White House speechwriters have already started work on Mr Bush's address in which he will tell the American people that they are going to war.

Even the Azores have a symbolic significance - they are owned by Portugal, Britain's oldest ally.

The historically and literary minded will recall another event there involving the British and the Spanish, immortalised in Tennyson's poem, The Revenge.

The first line was familiar to generations of British schoolchildren:

"At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay"

Inspiring story

Grenville was one of the mariners (pirates in the Spanish view) so loved by Queen Elizabeth I.

But he got caught by the Spanish fleet in the Azores and his little ship Revenge fought alone and to the death - a typically inspiring story of heroic British failure.

The poem is full of anti-Spanish sentiment ("Let us bang these dogs of Seville, the children of the devil").

One wonders if Mr Blair will recite it to Jose Maria Aznar as they look out across the waters and consider how alliances change.


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