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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006, 09:28 GMT
Rebalancing British foreign policy
Analysis
BY Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair with troops in Iraq
Tony Blair in Iraq: Was it "a terrible mistake"?

A report from a leading British think-tank describing the Iraq war as a "terrible mistake" and calling for a "rebalancing" of foreign policy has added to the debate about Britain's place in the world post-Tony Blair.

It is all part of a picture that shows that Britain has still not really decided where that place should be.

Getting too close to the US runs the risk of being swept up in American-dominated policies and ones that might lead to war.

But nestling up to the European Union runs the counter risk of adopting a joint decision-making process that might lead to a surrender of sovereignty.

This report, from Chatham House, was written by its retiring Director, Prof Victor Bulmer-Thomas. Given the weight that Chatham House exercises as a leading think tank on international affairs, it is likely to strengthen the arguments of those who believe that, under Mr Blair, the UK has been too close to the US.

"Tony Blair's successor(s) will not be able to offer unconditional support for US initiatives in foreign policy and a rebalancing of the UK's foreign policy between the US and Europe will have to take place," Prof Bulmer-Thomas says.

He regards the attacks of 11 September 2001 as "without a shadow of doubt the defining moment of Blair's foreign policy - indeed the defining moment of his whole premiership".

A rebalancing of the UK's foreign policy between the US and Europe will have to take place
Chatham House

It led, the report claims, to the "terrible mistake " of Iraq.

Yet despite his support for President Bush, it says, Mr Blair did not get much in return. The relationship with the US, described in Britain as "special" is never called anything more than "close" by Washington, it says.

The report's conclusions confirm that unless there is some stabilisation of Iraq, this interpretation of Mr Blair's record appears set to be the standard one.

However, it is being challenged strongly by Mr Blair's supporters. The Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, in a firmly worded statement, countered: "This paper is threadbare, insubstantial and just plain wrong. Chatham House has established a great reputation over the years, but this paper will do nothing to enhance it."

Presidents and prime ministers

Historically, Tony Blair has had a closer relationship with a US president than any British prime minister since the Thatcher-Reagan era and, before that, since Harold Macmillan persuaded John Kennedy to give Britain the Polaris nuclear missile. .

Every prime minister faces this problem. All live in the shadow of the great Churchill-Roosevelt duo. They have varied enormously in their response. This has not depended on their political outlook.

The Conservative Ted Heath kept his distance from the US and took Britain into Europe. Labour's Harold Wilson trod a more careful course with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam war.

Mr Wilson did not join that enterprise, but at the same time he refrained from criticising American policy, an approach that led his unfortunate Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart into some embarrassing verbal contortions.

Mr Blair veered towards Washington, not , however, because he thought there was something to be gained in return, though he might have wished for greater US action over the Israeli/Palestinian dispute.

Anyone who saw his first meeting with George Bush in the snows of Camp David soon after Mr Bush's inauguration as president in 2001 can be in little doubt that there was a sudden meeting of minds, indeed almost of souls.

Mr Bush has not dragged Mr Blair with him on any adventure. Mr Blair went into Iraq with his eyes open.

He is now paying the price. Equally he will reap the reward if things turn out better in the long-term.

EU problems

The "rebalancing" which the report calls for is not quite as straightforward as might appear. In fact, Prof Bulmer-Thomas acknowledges this when he says "the British public is still uncomfortable in its European skin".

If many Britons do not seem to like adherence to US policy of the kind we have seen over the last few years, many others would probably not like its opposite.

Which is why any British prime minister for the foreseeable future will be faced with what has become a permanent dilemma.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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