Malcolm Rifkind

That’s enough grovelling, PM

The Atlantic alliance is essential to the national interest, says Malcolm Rifkind, but Mr Blair should not give unconditional support to the US

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Why is Tony Blair regularly lampooned as George Bush's poodle? It is a fate that Margaret Thatcher never suffered, despite her long and intimate alliance with Ronald Reagan.

The reason is not that difficult to find. Thatcher was perfectly willing to swing her handbag at the Americans if she judged that British interests required it. There is, as yet, no evidence that Blair would even wag his finger in that direction.

Few of us would disagree with any British prime minister who makes the relationship with Washington and the White House a central part of his foreign policy. The British are more interested in power than in philosophy, more concerned with influence than with ideology. The Americans have that power. We want to have the influence.

In any event the United Kingdom, far more than any other European country, shares the values, the political priorities and the historical perspective of the United States. We are, to a considerable extent, an Atlantic and not just a European nation. There is no contradiction in this. In the same way, the Americans themselves are a Pacific as well as an Atlantic country, with different priorities at different times.

So Lloyd George cultivated Woodrow Wilson, Churchill was close to Roosevelt, Macmillan charmed Kennedy, and Thatcher lectured Bush senior. Blair is part of that tradition, and we can welcome it. But that is where the similarity ends.

The frequent comparison of Tony Blair to a loyal, diminutive canine comes about because his support for George Bush seems to be unconditional and unqualified. But wait a moment, you might say. What about his pressure for a UN second resolution? What about his support for UN involvement in Iraqi reconstruction? What about his promotion of the Middle East road-map? Surely these have all been policies that began in London and for which Blair can claim the credit?

That is all true, but with a fairly fundamental qualification. Yes, my old colleagues in the Foreign Office have been working night and day on splendid British initiatives. And, yes, some of them have been taken up by the Americans. But the whole point is that whenever the Americans don't like them, Blair doesn't growl defiance but lies on his back like his canine comparator and waits for his tummy to be tickled.

If you think I am being unfair, just ponder on the events of the last few months. Blair tells us now that the invasion of Iraq and the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a great moral and ethical imperative. Well, if it was, why wasn't it so for the first five years of his prime ministership? The truth is that Blair had not the slightest intention of advocating regime change in Iraq until Bush told him that it had become American policy.

Likewise, the British public were told that a UN second resolution was essential until it became obvious that it wasn't going happen. Then we were told by Blair that if a second resolution wasn't achieved because of one unreasonable veto, that could be ignored. In the event, the problem was not one veto but the absence of even a bare majority of the Security Council in favour of immediate attack.

George Bush wasn't guilty of such evasion and deliberate ambiguity. He had made it crystal-clear from the beginning that the Americans would attack with or without international support. Blair started by insisting on the UN route, but when Bush came to shove, he crumbled quickly.

Like many I have admired the political skill and leadership that Blair has shown in taking on most of his own party and winning. But the truth is that he had little choice. It was not part of his original plan to have almost half the Labour backbenchers voting against him and more than a million people protesting on the streets of London. He seriously misjudged the strength of opposition to his support for Bush. But if he had given in to the protests, he would have been finished. The Americans would have despised him and the Europeans would have been contemptuous of his conversion to the peace party. In the end, the gamble worked, but gamble, not master strategy, it was.

Previous prime ministers have been quite prepared to fight it out with the Americans if necessary. Churchill was passionately opposed to Roosevelt allowing Stalin to occupy large parts of Eastern Europe that could have been liberated first by US and British troops. Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Thatcher roundly condemned the Americans for the invasion of Grenada and was bitterly critical of US attempts to impose sanctions on British firms such as John Brown Engineering that were trading with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

British interests are best served by a close relationship with the United States, but Blair has yet to learn that unqualified endorsement of US policy is a bridge too far.

His priority now should be to try to salvage Nato and the Western alliance after the damage done by the French, the Germans and the Americans, as well as by his own government, over the last few months. The question is not whether Nato will survive; I have no doubt that it will. But it could change beyond all recognition.

Few people are aware that the strength of Nato is not that it is a political alliance but that it is also an integrated military structure. It has been the only example in the history of the world of a number of nations accepting, in peacetime, a single international command structure for a large part of their armed forces; having constant joint training and being prepared to give a military as well as a political commitment if any one of their members is attacked. For this system to work, the permanent stationing of thousands of American troops in Europe has been necessary.

This is what is now under threat. The Americans have already announced that they are withdrawing their forces from Saudi Arabia after many years. Their disillusionment with Europe is just as strong, and there will be loud Congressional calls to save money and to show their displeasure by pulling out of Europe too. If they did, America as well as Europe would suffer and Nato would become a shadow of its former self.

Blair should now gird his loins and make it clear to Washington that he would not put up with this. He would have Colin Powell's support but not, necessarily, that of Donald Rumsfeld. In the battle for Bush's ear, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, would be decisive.

Crucial, however, would be a willingness by Blair to be as blunt and critical with his friends in Washington as he is with those who used to be his friends in the Labour party. This issue is not yet on Bush's agenda. It will be in six months' time unless the British Prime Minister gets to work. As Winston would have said, 'Action this day!'

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995 to 1997.