Why Bush Had to go to Britain

Pomp, pageantry, and protest will be the highlights of President Bush's trip to Britain this week. Indeed, officials say this is the most ceremonial visit by a US president since Woodrow Wilson's in 1918.

But, alas, the trip was planned long ago, when Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair thought they'd be basking in the glory of victory in Iraq. Instead, British public opinion remains firmly against the Bush-Blair actions, even after the war. The British public welcome mat for this unpopular US president will be small indeed.

Just the same, the visit will serve to reinforce Mr. Blair's conviction that Britain can't afford to damage its close alliance with the United States, as France and Germany did by their actions before the war. Despite being snubbed by Bush on a few prewar and postwar tactics, Blair hung in there.

It's hard to imagine any such state visit had Blair opposed the war, or perhaps even a 21st-century Boston Tea Party to match the American snubbing of French imports.

But even more, the US would have felt more distant from a Europe that's trying to set itself up as a rival power. NATO would have had less support from Americans. Some in Congress might now be asking to pull US troops out of Europe. The US would have increasingly shifted its attention toward Asia.

Blair's pro-US policy reflects a historic need for Britain, as an island nation off Europe, to keep a balance of power with the Continent. Only the US can help it deal with any rising power in Europe. The history of 20th-century Europe, after all, isn't just that the US saved nations like Britain, but that it hesitated too long to intervene.

Keeping a close tie with the US is one reason Britain has not fully thrown itself into the European Union, preferring an equidistant policy with the US and EU economies.

So, beyond the protests or displays of disdain for Bush this week in Britain, the visit acknowledges an alliance that can withstand the slings and arrows of temporary differences.

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