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EDITIONS
Friday, 18 July, 2003, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Historic address
Tony Balir
Tony Blair told American politicians that history will forgive the Iraq war, even if there's no link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But it remains to be seen if British and American voters are in such a forgiving mood as doubts mount over the grounds for invading Iraq.

Despite recent disagreements over Guantanamo and intelligence on uranium, Tony Blair and George Bush maintain the alliance is as close as ever.

The culmination of Tony Blair's day in Washington came in an historic address to both Houses of Congress. Only the fourth British prime minister ever to be granted this privilege, Tony Blair spent much of his speech putting the war in Iraq into a bigger context and expressing his conviction that history will judge it more generously than many of his contemporary critics.

Martha Kearney discussed the speech with the Democratic congressman Jim McDermott, Anatol Lieven of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Lord Powell, the former foreign affairs adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
I am joined from Capitol Hill by the Democratic Congressman, Jim McDermot, who was watching the speech. We lost count of the number of standing ovations. What was it like for you?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McDERMOTT:
Well, it was a mixed speech. Some things were good and some things I disagreed with. When he talked about American unilateralism and the fact it wasn't going to work, and that we had to work with the rest of the world on global climate change and other things, I was very much pleased by what he said. He made some very slight British digs at the Americans for what we've done. I really disagree with the Bush administration. On the other hand, he said nothing about this information which was in the President's speech which as everybody says is bogus. He just blew it off. He acted as though that doesn't make any difference any more. Because we took out Saddam Hussein, we should forget about all the misinformation used as the basis for all this.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
You are talking about the claim that the Iraqi Government was seeking to buy uranium?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McDERMOTT:
Yes. That whole business where even our own president has backed down and said it was wrong, it was bogus and - but Mr Blair continues to say it's out there. My question is, why hasn't Blair given that to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and why didn't he give it to them during the time that they were over there looking?

MARTHA KEARNEY:
Clearly, that is a running dispute in the States at the moment, but aren't you in rather a tiny minority to be critical of Tony Blair, judging by the reception got in Congress earlier?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McDERMOTT:
More than half the Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the war, so we were divided. It's very clear that we were divided. I think that it's becoming more divided as we go down the road and more and more of our people keep dying. Everybody thinks the military did a good job, but they say that Bush did nothing to prepare for after the war, and now we are losing people, one an two and three every night, as the Brits have lost. People who voted for the war are now raising serious questions about this.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
Could this possibly be seen as political opportunism? Already in a sense we are into an election timetable in the United States. That this is a way for you to get at President Bush?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McDERMOTT:
Well, everything has political implications. When the President takes an aircraft carrier out and spins it is around in mid-ocean so that he can have the right backdrop for a phoney landing, you have to say that was political. Of course, there are political ramifications to this. Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era - I was a Vietnam era veteran - and we haven't forgotten what our government did to people. It's happening all over again.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
Thank you very much for joining us. So where does all this leave the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair? I am joined now by Charles Pole, who used to be close adviser to Mrs Thatcher, and Anatol Lieven from the Carnegie Fund. There is clearly a fractious atmosphere going on behind the scenes despite the rapturous reception we saw Tony Blair getting. Do you think that indicates in some way that there is a fragility, a vulnerability in the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair?

ANATOL LIEVEN:
I think, Bush's attempt to cast some of the blame for the misinformation concerning the run-up to the Iraq war on to Blair's shoulders, or Britain's shoulders, must have put strain on the relationship, but on the other hand they are in this together now. They are both being held accountable by large sections of their own public opinion for getting us into this war on what looks increasingly like cooked-up information, and so to a certain extent they have to stick together. I think that was also reflected very strongly in Blair's speech to Congress.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
What kind of effect do you think that this little local difficulty some might describe it, more fundamental disagreement about the intelligence claims - do you think the relationship can withstand that?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
I am quite sure it can. I don't believe the story that there are serious divisions behind the scenes. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Washington. I saw several senior members of the administration, of Congress. I didn't detect a hint of differences behind the scenes. When all is said and done, this question of did Iraq try to get uranium yellow cake from Niger is a very, very small part of the whole story. Of course it did get it from there 20 years ago in its first nuclear programme. It's possible it could do it again. The thing was about getting rid of an evil regime that everyone believed was developing weapons of mass destruction. The UN Security Council inspectors, everyone.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
In the course of the run-up to the war, how would you describe the power balance in the relationship?

ANATOL LIEVEN:
There is no balance in the relationship. It's very clear who is in a position of dominance. Once again, that was reflected in Blair's speech, which admittedly did, as the Democratic Congressman just told us, contain some very light elements of pressure or reproach to America, but was overwhelmingly concerned with, frankly, rather fulsome praise of the United States. As I don't need to tell you, this is the key problem for Blair at home in Britain. How much influence for Britain is this relationship actually bringing?

MARTHA KEARNEY:
He did rather tiptoe round sensitive issues like the Kyoto treaty and the Middle East peace process. Can he really exercise influence over George Bush?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
I believe he does exercise influence over George Bush. You don't go to the US Congress and insult them. You go there and make some sensible points. I thought he made important points about the way the Americans should handle their alliance partners. It's not a command relationship, it's a relationship where they should consult more.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
What are the concrete examples of where he has managed to exert influence?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
The single biggest one has been the road map to Middle East peace. That has been the centrepiece of Blair's diplomacy over the last year now. The Americans have come round to it, they were very resistant.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
Is that an achievement?

ANATOL LIEVEN:
It is a tactical achievement. The question is whether this will lead to sufficient American pressure on Israel actually to bring about peace. A peace process is not a peace settlement and, unless we see that pressure on Israel, this will not be judged by a majority of Arabs, or I believe a majority of British people, to be a sincere commitment on the part of the Bush administration. America will be perceived as still not a neutral party to this conflict, but as in fact a supporter of one side in it.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
I suppose, even if you give credit for the Middle East peace process and the road map, what kind of credit is there likely to be in the future? Can we rely on this credit in the bank lasting longer than the immediate aftermath of the war?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
Relationships develop, but I think it's extremely important that they have started on the peace process. Anatol Lieven slightly dismisses it, but a peace process is better than no peace process. Let's be clear about that. I have heard former President Clinton say he believes President Bush is sincere about tackling this problem and committing his full prestige to getting a settlement. Don't let's be dismissive of it. This is big stuff.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
Tony Blair would argue that what he has managed to do is to push America often down the multilateral route, when Britain got America to get involved in the UN process, and on occasion more positively, like in the case of the road map. Doesn't he deserve some credit for that?

ANATOL LIEVEN:
He does deserve some credit, but I think one must remember that the decision to go via the UN route was a tactical decision, a strategic victory for Britain would have been if Blair had got the Bush administration to go for disarmament and not regime change. But all the indications are that the Bush administration had already decided to go for regime change and Britain was unable to change that. He can alter tactics. The question is whether he can actually alter American strategy. The second question is...

MARTHA KEARNEY:
So briefly, Charles Powell, was this pure pragmatism?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
No. I believe Tony Blair quite rightly believed that we had to deal with the problem and the threat presented by Iraq, on many scores. On the nature of the regime, on the likelihood they were developing weapons of mass destruction and for the interests of security and stability in the Middle East. He was quite right to go that route and I believe history will justify him.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
So this was just a question of the convergence of joint interests rather than a junior partner following a senior one?

ANATOL LIEVEN:
Well, no. I am afraid I think it was very clear that the junior partner followed and had given away in advance its ability to disagree, because as one of your correspondents noted earlier, Blair ended his speech to Congress with an unconditional commitment to follow the United States whatever the United States decides. Now, if you do that, I think there is a strong argument that you have given away a large part of your influence in advance.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
And possibly also, Charles Powell, you have given away influence in another arena, which matters greatly to British interests, which is in Europe. There has been a price to be paid. The closer the relationship with the United States has meant that we have alienated allies like France and Germany?

LORD CHARLES POWELL:
I don't believe you can look at it like that. Britain has been historically close to the United States. It's a reality. It doesn't prevent us being a powerful influence in Europe. Let's also remember, a majority of European countries were also supportive of the United States in this war. France and Germany stood out as exceptions. They weren't the majority. They didn't determine European policy.

MARTHA KEARNEY:
We will leave it there. Thank you both.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Martha Kearney
discussed whether adoration for Tony Blair in Washington is counter productive back home.
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