BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: UK Politics
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Blair strides world stage
Tony Blair with other G8 leaders
Blair is now an experienced figure on the world stage
Andrew Marr

The weight of responsibility on Tony Blair's shoulders is awesome. He was first with unequivocal support for President Bush, first to declare that this was an attack on Britain too.

He has offered as much military, intelligence and diplomatic support as he can. He has deliberately and cheerfully tied himself to America's response to the New York outrage; and history will judge him on what happens next.

Every day and hour that passes without a massive US strike adds to the belief that Washington, with her allies, has decided to try to play this long and clever

Not surprisingly Downing Street - never the most open of political operations - is tight-lipped about the detail.

Officials play down the idea that Mr Blair's role is to calm down Mr Bush. It isn't that kind of conversation, they say. It is closer, more friendly, more wide-ranging and more driven by a cold, common determination.

But every day and hour that passes without a massive US strike adds to the belief that Washington, with her allies, has decided to try to play this long and clever.

If - a big if - that proves to be so, Mr Blair will undoubtedly take a large slice of the credit. He has had two specific early tasks as the post-World Trade Centre world reshapes itself.

Keeping a coalition

The first is to keep other European countries well-informed about American thinking and tied into the coalition for military action against international terrorism.

It may seem a cliché, but Britain really does have closer intelligence, political and military links to Washington than other EU countries.

The fact that Mr Blair is, by today's standards, an experienced Western leader, and went out of his way to build a warm relationship with Mr Bush, clearly helps.

Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder
Blair will meet Chirac and Schroeder later this week
In his meetings with the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the French President Jacques Chirac this week, Mr Blair will be pressed hard for further details about what Washington really plans.

In Washington, he will bring more analysis of how far allies such as France are prepared to go in backing US-led military action.

But the more substantial part of his discussion with President Bush will be about the details and of that action, and the longer-term security and military agenda of their 'war on terrorism'.

How far can legalistic Western countries go in pursuing tactics such as assassination? What can be done to choke off the financial resources of terrorists? How can the Pakistani government be helped in return for providing support? These are among the issues almost certain to be discussed.

Britain's second self-imposed job is to work with Middle Eastern countries to keep as many of them on-side as possible.

'Arabist' expertise

The Foreign Office has a long history of 'Arabist' expertise and has not quite forgotten it, with large numbers of senior diplomats who are fluent Arabic speakers and have had substantial career experience in the region.

In this crisis, history counts for little compared to hard policy proposals. The Foreign Office, along with Number Ten, have been putting heavy pressure on Israel to stop its incursions into Palestinian towns - and again, the early signs are that Israel is responding.

Meanwhile Mr Blair's early and unequivocal support for Islam as a religion standing apart from the terrorist extremists, has been welcomed by Arab leaders. None of this is headline-grabbing stuff in the current circumstances; but it may turn out to matter a lot.

One sensitive issue the more pro-Western Arab leaders will want to raise is British hospitality for radicals who threaten their regimes.

Tony Blair's bridge is busy and swaying and of great importance at a time of world danger

The range of Islamic groups based in Britain has led to the wry comment that the most important political city in the Middle East is London.

It is fair to say that some radical rethinking of policy is already going on.

The idea that Britain is a 'bridge' between the US and Europe is an old, familiar one, trotted out by successive Prime Ministers.

Suddenly, now, it is full of meaning. Tony Blair's bridge is busy and swaying and of great importance at a time of world danger. The drop below is long and lethal.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
talks mid-flight to the BBC's Andrew Marr
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK Politics stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK Politics stories