Bush and Blair: The Odd Couple

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 12, 2004; 11:15 AM

One of the unlikeliest but most important friendships in the world took center stage as British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a post-election call on President Bush at the White House.

Blair, who had been a political soul-mate to Bill Clinton, became a blood-brother to Bush when the two leaders joined forces to invade Iraq.

Peter Graff writes for Reuters: "When President Bush first met Tony Blair four years ago, all the sophisticated left-leaning London lawyer and the folksy Texan rancher seemed to share was toothpaste.

"Asked what he had in common with the British Prime Minister, Bush said they both used Colgate."

Here's the text of that unfortunate news conference.

"Since then," Graff writes, "Blair's decision to stand by Bush has become perhaps the single most decisive relationship in world politics.

"The friendship has been nothing but a blessing for Bush, and an unmitigated headache for Blair, lampooned to devastating effect by cartoonists at home as the president's poodle."

Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post in June, before the G8 Summit: "Blair was extremely close to Clinton, a fellow political centrist, and much of his staff -- and his wife, Cherie Blair -- were furious that Bush won the disputed 2000 election over Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. But that did not stop Blair from carefully studying Bush and figuring out what he wanted, British officials said. . . .

"Blair sees himself as a bridge to Europe for Bush, and he works to dull the sharp edges of the administration's unilateral tendencies. In the run-up to the war with Iraq, Blair helped Bush make midcourse corrections in a bid to win greater international support -- though, in the end, the effort largely failed.

"Bush and Blair now closely coordinate their policies. Blair writes long letters to Bush -- it is unclear whether Bush writes long letters back -- and the two leaders frequently communicate via a secure video link between the White House and the basement of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence."

James Naughtie, author of "The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency," was Live Online in September. He explained the relationship this way:

"TB was worried about terrorism before 9/11 and had discovered -- to his surprise and enormous relief -- that he could get on well, personally, with GWB. So after 9/11, TB's fears about terrorism, his natural sympathy with the US after the horror -- emotions run high in his politics -- meant that he became convinced (unlike most of his Cabinet) that the 'war on terror' was a battle that had to be fought side by side with Washington. If you point out to him, as I have done -- read the book! -- that he made common cause with neo cons who came from an entirely different perspective, he will simply assert that he believed that approach to Saddam was correct and was therefore willing to go along with anyone who shared that view, whatever part of the political forest they crept out from."

Warren Hoge wrote in the New York Times, upon the occasion of Bush's visit to Britain a year ago: "In hugging Washington warmly, Mr. Blair is doing what almost all postwar prime ministers have done, but it has placed him at the side of an American chief executive who is a polarizing figure in Britain and in support of a United States-led war that is deeply unpopular here. . . .

"To objections over his close alliance with Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair asks if detractors would prefer the United States be left to shoulder the burden of international security by itself. 'I always say to people that the thing I fear is not American unilateralism,' he said to a group of London-based American reporters last week. 'It is actually American isolationism were it ever to go down that path.'"

Bob Woodward, in an excerpt from his book "Plan of Attack," described the interplay between Bush and Blair in the runup to the invasion of Iraq. Bush was concerned that Blair's government might fall because of his support for Bush, and gave Blair the option of withholding British troops from combat, which Blair rejected. "I said I'm with you. I mean it," Blair said.

So now the big question is: Is it payback time? By all indications, Blair is seeking to reawaken Bush's somnolent pursuit of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Blair's Project: The Middle East

There were a lot of indications that something is afoot, even before today's news conference.

Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen write in today's Washington Post: "The White House, seeking to take advantage of the diplomatic opening created by Yasser Arafat's death, is prepared to consider a British proposal that President Bush appoint a special Middle East envoy to shepherd the peace process, administration officials said yesterday.

"British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arrived here yesterday and ate dinner privately with Bush last night, has said he hopes to prod the White House into becoming more engaged in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. . . .

"While Bush and Blair will take questions from reporters today, officials indicated there will not be any major announcements resulting from their talks."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "President Bush is expected to call on Europe to assume a key role in helping the new Palestinian leadership build and support institutions and prepare for negotiations with Israel, American and European diplomats said Thursday.

"Such a call would represent a notable increase in cooperation between Washington and its European allies over the Middle East."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration is preparing to advance the stalled Middle East peace effort by strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership that it hopes will emerge with the death of Yasser Arafat, U.S. officials said Thursday.

"Officials said they would focus on helping to arrange the forthcoming Palestinian Authority elections and using their influence to ensure that Israelis and Palestinians work out plans for a secure withdrawal of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip."

Bill Nichols and Barbara Slavin write in USA Today: "The Bush administration's estranged European allies will be watching today's meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, looking for signs that Bush intends to reach beyond his friendship with Blair to try to improve relations with other European countries, some analysts say. . . .

"Some analysts in the USA and Britain question whether Bush will offer Blair more than supportive statements and a post-election White House photo session. Derided by his critics as Bush's 'poodle,' Blair may want to show some substantive achievements from this friendship, particularly with general elections in Britain expected next year."

Guy Dinmore writes in the Financial Times: "The White House called together diplomats from France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands a week ago to canvas views on post-Arafat scenarios. Diplomats had the impression the meeting was part of a new, and welcome, effort by the Bush administration to reach out to Europe. . . .

"However, even some US officials remain sceptical that the White House, influenced by the commitment of influential neo-conservatives to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party, is about to launch a genuine initiative."

Gonzales, Day Two

Elisabeth Bumiller and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times that "Republicans close to the White House . . . said Mr. Gonzales had been widely viewed as one of President Bush's top choices for the [Supreme C]ourt. But by first sending him to the Justice Department, they said, Mr. Bush could then nominate a conservative favored by his political base to fill the first vacancy that arises.

"For Mr. Gonzales, tenure as attorney general would allow him to demonstrate his reliability to conservative leaders, many of whom say they are unsure of his views on issues like abortion and affirmative action, Republicans said. One Republican said Mr. Gonzales's nomination hearings in Congress would also 'get out of the way' the debate over legal memorandums that Mr. Gonzales supervised as White House counsel. Civil rights groups say memorandums about the treatment of captured terrorism suspects appeared to endorse the torture of some prisoners and opened the door to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Republicans told Bumiller and Lewis that the strategy for Gonzalez was largely the work of Karl Rove.

Darryl Fears writes in The Washington Post: "Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organizations yesterday hailed President Bush's nomination of White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, which put the Texas Republican on track to become the nation's most powerful Hispanic public official.

"But while some embraced the nomination as a big step toward wider acceptance of Hispanics, others joined People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union in calling for thorough hearings on Gonzales's role in shaping anti-terrorism policies that led, they said, to the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq."

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "The road to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales' confirmation as the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general may run through two controversial places: the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Texas's death row.

"Although most senators expect President Bush's longtime friend and White House lawyer to be confirmed as the 80th U.S. attorney general, Democrats plan to use a hearing on his nomination to press for answers on White House decisions they think led to the Iraqi prisoners scandal.

"Gonzales' confirmation 'may be the only remaining forum in which to examine more fully the steps that were taken to weaken U.S. policy on torture in the period that led to the prison scandals at Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan,' said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Death penalty opponents also want Gonzales questioned on how the Justice Department will apply the federal death penalty given Gonzales' time in Texas as adviser to then-Gov. Bush."

Phillip Carter, writing in Slate, describes some of the questions senators might want to ask.

The Blackwill Exit

Glenn Kessler and Al Kamen write in The Washington Post: "Robert D. Blackwill, who resigned last week as the White House's top official on Iraq policy, was recently scolded by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told her that Blackwill appeared to have verbally abused and physically hurt a female embassy staffer during a visit to Kuwait in September, administration officials said.

"The incident took place as Blackwill was rushing to return home after a visit to Baghdad to join a campaign swing planned by President Bush. As six officials describe the incident, he arrived at the Air France counter at the Kuwait airport and learned he was not on the flight manifest. Blackwill then turned in fury to an embassy secretary who had accompanied him to the airport and demanded that he be given a seat on the flight, grabbing her arm at one point, the officials said. . . .

"Several officials noted that after the incident was reported, Blackwill traveled repeatedly with Bush on his campaign plane in the final weeks before the election. Blackwill, a deputy to Rice, was widely considered one of the top prospects to replace her as national security adviser if she took another job in the administration."

The Evangelical Imperative

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Christian evangelicals provided much of the passion and manpower for President Bush's reelection. But even as they celebrate his victory, many of the movement's leaders are experiencing post-election anxiety, worried that their strong support for the president might not translate into the instant influence they expected. . . .

"Adding wrinkles to their relationship with the White House, some evangelical leaders worry that Bush's circle of advisors includes aides who are insufficiently committed to conservative social values.

"Some see Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff and a former Massachusetts state legislator, as too moderate. They note that Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, has said that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states, in contrast to evangelicals' call for a constitutional ban."

The Associated Press reports: "Bob Jones III, president of the fundamentalist college that bears his name, has told President Bush he should use his electoral mandate to appoint conservative judges and approve legislation 'defined by biblical norm.'

"'In your re-election, God has graciously granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism,' Jones wrote Bush in a congratulatory letter posted on the university's Web site.

Jones also says in the letter: "You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

Land of Second Thoughts

Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column: "Welcome to Reelection Washington, the land of second thoughts. It's getting down to crunch time for the Bush Cabinet on whether they're staying or going -- and some repositioning seems to be the order of the day."

Kamen in particular examines repositionings at State and Health and Human Services.

Kamen also catches Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) spelling Alberto Gonzales's name with a "z", and reports that Victor D. Cha, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and a Pentagon consultant, is the front-runner to replace Michael J. Green as senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2002, Cha coined the phrase "hawk engagement" to describe the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea.

Hubris Watch

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post that Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, announced yesterday that he had resigned from the agency.

"The agency allowed Scheuer to publish his book, 'Imperial Hubris,' anonymously, and to conduct media interviews to promote it under the name "Mike." The book became a bestseller. . . .

"After some White House officials and pundits asserted that the CIA had allowed Scheuer to act as its surrogate critic on the war, CIA officials forbade him from speaking publicly.

"Scheuer said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday that he believes the agency silenced him after CIA officials realized he was blaming the CIA, not the administration, for mishandling terrorism. 'As long as the book was being used to bash the president, they gave me carte blanche to talk to the media,' he said. 'But this is a story about the failure of the bureaucracy to support policymakers.'"

Intel Watch

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Despite his public support for restructuring the nation's intelligence community, President Bush has done little to ensure that reforms modeled on the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission pass in the coming lame duck session of Congress.

"And the legislation, which has run into stiff opposition from the Defense Department, is thought to have little chance of passage when a new Congress begins work next year."

Deficit Hawks

Tim Annett writes in the Wall Street Journal: "According to the 55 economists who participated in The Wall Street Journal Online's November economic forecasting survey, along with tackling Social Security's ills the president should be placing equal emphasis on reducing what more than half of them agree is the biggest economic challenge facing his administration: the government's yawning budget deficit."

All the President's Judges

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Issuing a blunt warning to Democrats, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said Thursday that the newly strengthened Republican majority would not allow filibusters to block action on judicial nominees in President Bush's second term."

Veterans Day

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush paused on Veterans Day to honor the 'hidden heroes' in America's military who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency and in wars past. He also paid tribute to soldiers he said are waging a winning battle against insurgents west of Baghdad.

"'Some of tomorrow's veterans are in combat in Iraq at this hour,' Bush said Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns."

Here is the text of his remarks at Arlington National Cemetery.

Late Night Humor

From the Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

"The Bush White House had long had chilly relations with Arafat, and as CNN's Bill Hemmer noted this morning, that chill extended beyond the grave."

Stewart shows Hemmer: "I'm looking at the list of those who will attend and represent various nations around the world. I see foreign ministers and presidents, and in the American column, I see an assistant secretary of state, William Burns. What does that signal to the Palestinian people?"

Continues Stewart: "I'm guessing it signals someone at the State Department really has it in for William Burns. 'Burnsie, you got a black suit? Good, throw it on. You can grab a bouquet at the airport.'"

© 2004 washingtonpost.com