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Test for Blair's 'loyalty' strategy

Thursday, Britain's prime minister addresses a joint session of the US Congress.

By , Mark Rice-Oxley / July 17, 2003



WASHINGTON AND LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks to a joint session of Congress Thursday at a moment when the "special relationship" between the US and Britain is under particular strain. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the timing of an honor Congress intends to bestow upon British Prime Minister Tony Blair.]

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The primary reason is the continuing controversy over intelligence cited by Mr. Blair and President Bush to justify the Iraq war. The US has tapped Britain as the source of now-discredited information, while British officials say the US held back key information on the intelligence in the run-up to war.

Beyond that, an unstable and deadly postwar Iraq is replacing what was supposed to be a victory glow with an uncomfortable spotlight on cracks in the tight US-British friendship. Bush can hardly relish the focus Blair's visit places on the intelligence controversy. Blair, meanwhile - already under attack at home - will be looking for help from his friend George while seeking to show constituents there is daylight between the two countries.

"Blair really is coming at the worst possible moment for both leaders," says Ivo Daalder, an expert in US-Europe relations at Washington's Brookings Institution. "[His] medal is lost in the maelstrom of controversy about the reasons for going to war and the aftermath."

The visit may give US and British audiences a stronger hint of what separates the two countries, as well as what unites them, than at any time in the recent past.

The US 'foreign minister'?

The two have marched side by side in Afghanistan and Iraq, speak as one on North Korea, and sing from the same hymn sheet where trouble spots like Zimbabwe and Colombia are concerned - leading some of Blair's detractors to complain that Britain and America are now indistinguishable on matters of foreign policy.

They have dubbed Blair "US foreign minister" and Bush's "poodle," while some international critics say London has lost its independent voice and is merely doing Washington's bidding.

But Britain and America have numerous issues on which they scarcely see eye to eye - and the list appears to be growing.

At the top currently is America's plan to try suspected terrorists, including some Britons, at Guantanamo. Differences on Iran and the Middle East also lurk just below the surface, as do disagreements on trade, global warming, genetically modified crops, the International Criminal Court, and arms control.

But where other powers might choose to fall out or lock horns over such matters, Britain is trying to influence its powerful friend by standing by it. The approach has brought Blair important trophies, some experts say.

"The 'poodle' comment we hear so often is belied by the reality of how diplomacy works, and in particular by what Blair has to show for his regularly whispering in the ear of a partner he doesn't always agree with," says John Hulsman, a European specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Among Blair's "tangible results," he includes the fact that the US went through the UN at all before going to war in Iraq; the administration's "helpful" engagement on Northern Ireland; and getting Bush to push the road map for Middle East peace.

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