Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
We all know the feeling. You glance at the diary and realise you have guests coming to stay next week, when nothing could be less convenient. They're coming from abroad, expecting to be entertained for several days and it's far too late to cancel. This is the last thing you need. So spare a thought for Tony Blair, as he scans the calendar and sighs. There are the dates, circled and unyielding: November 18 to 21 - Bush in Britain. And for a fortnight, starting now, all eyes will focus not on the domestic agenda by which his government will eventually be judged, but on the matter which has brought him greatest grief since taking office.
He knows what it will mean. His guest is the most unpopular US president in living memory. The anti-war movement will be back on the march, gearing up for its biggest outing since it brought up to 2 million Britons onto the streets in February. Blair will have to make yet more speeches like the one at Guildhall on Monday, once again defending the war on Iraq.
Speaking to journalists at Downing Street after talks with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Mr Blair defended the right to protest but said people should recognise the value of Britain's "special relationship" with Washington.
"The great thing about living in a democracy is that people are free to express their view," Mr Blair said. "But I think we in this country should be proud of our alliance with America. I think we should be proud of the fact that in the last few years a country like Afghanistan has been rid of the Taliban, that Iraq no longer suffers under the lash of Saddam and his sons."
"Attack the decision to go to war, though have the integrity to realize that without it, those Iraqis now tasting freedom would still be under the lash of Saddam, his sons and their henchmen." said Blair.
Blair must want to shout up the stairs to Cherie: "I never wanted him to come here in the first place. Whose bloody idea was this?" As well he might ask. For no one seems ready to own up to this particular invitation.
"It came up as a matter of routine," says a Foreign Office spokesman, "all American presidents get them in their first term." Except Bush's trip can hardly be described as routine. He will be the first US president to come here on a state visit - with all the extra lashings of ceremony and royal red carpet that that term implies. (There was big hoopla for Woodrow Wilson in 1918 but even that, the protocol experts say, did not quite count.) Working visits are common enough, but a royal welcome is not given easily: Bill Clinton had to wait till his final month in office before he had an invitation to take tea at Buckingham Palace. Bush will be staying there as a house guest.
The pResident and First Lady Laura Bush will stay at Buckingham Palace, where they will be guests of honor at a lavish banquet given by Queen Elizabeth. Bush is also expected to meet with Tony Blair at 10 Downing St., lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and deliver a speech.
Getting the first ever state visit for a US president was a big request, but Team Bush had just the man to make it. William Farish, the US ambassador to London, has been the invisible man of the diplomatic circuit since he arrived here. But he has one asset: he is a genuinely close friend of the Windsors. A racing fanatic, he even trains and keeps the Queen's horses at his Kentucky estate.
So how did it happen?
It seems incredible that the White House could breezily decide to use Britain as a backdrop for a glorified ad campaign - and be granted its wish. According to this version, it is Washington, not London, which is driving next week's visit. My Republican source detects the hand of Karl Rove, Bush's chief political counsellor: "Rove is driving the timing and image-making of all this." Even the timing is designed to suit them: late November is the run-up to Thanksgiving, with Congress due to be in recess and a convenient drought of rival news. They could not wait till next year, when the election campaign will be at full throttle, and when foreign jaunts risk Bush Sr. Syndrome - spending too much time abroad when Americans want their president to fix things at home. Next week is the time that best suits the Republican re-election effort, so that is the week he is coming.
One Republican source, close to the White House, has a theory as to why the Queen is such an important catch for the image makers. "Look, Americans don't know shit. They're not going to recognise the prime minister of the Philippines. The only foreign leaders they could pick out are the Queen of England and the Pope - and we've already got those pictures." With the Pontiff in the can, the Queen is the co-star the president needs.
A clue can be found in the text studied more closely than any other by the political operatives in the Bush White House: the campaign to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984. That made heavy use of TV footage which cast Reagan as a statesman, at home across the globe. A favourite sequence showed the president and the Queen on horseback in Windsor Great Park during his 1982 visit. The Bush team want some royal shots like that of their own. Apparently they were particularly keen on an open-carriage procession down the Mall, and are said to be disheartened by London's suggestion that that might not be possible due to "security".
All of which makes you wonder if even the hosts are getting cold feet. You can hardly blame them. For who does this trip really benefit? Not Blair, who's getting a headache he could do without. Not the Queen, who has an allergy to political controversy and, given recent events, can hardly be eager to see her already beleaguered institution tarred by association with the "toxic Texan".
The British government insists it really wants this visit, that a relationship with the sole superpower cannot be taken for granted, but has to be, in Jack Straw's words, "maintained and nurtured". But this seems a stretch. If Britain, which continues to lose soldiers in Iraq, and Blair, who has put his entire prime ministership in jeopardy, have not already done enough to maintain and nurture this relationship, then what kind of relationship is this?
No, there is only one beneficiary of this visit and it is the Bush White House. With an election campaign looming, they are anxious to deflect the accusation that Bush is isolated. They want to show he has allies and friends around the world and few play better in the US than Tony Blair, whose American ratings put his home numbers in the shade. That explains why Bush is keen to be seen with the PM, but not why he might want the full flummery of a state visit.
If this is the White House's thinking, some UK government officials wonder if they might have blundered. The best pictures from next week may be of a giant Bush statue being toppled, Saddam style, in Trafalgar Square.
When President Bush arrives in London next Tuesday, protesters plan a reenactment of the historic Iraq statue-toppling in Trafalgar Square. But instead of Saddam Hussein, they'll be tearing down a papier-maché effigy of Bush.
If rioters on heat, rather than a president on horseback, is the defining image of the visit, won't that be a failure? Not necessarily. So long as the protesters look like the usual suspects - multiply pierced, Genoa-style activists in torn clothes and mohican haircuts - then, I'm told, the White House will not worry. They will be able to say Bush enjoys the global support of all but a few anarchist weirdos. If the demonstrators look like the UK equivalent of America's "soccer moms", regular people of all ages, including plenty of women - tricky to bring out on a weekday - then Washington may have to rethink.
TONY Blair should ditch President Bush when he visits, a former aide to Bill Clinton warned last night. Sidney Blumenthal said the PM would have to "tap dance like Fred Astaire" to dodge Labour fury. He also urged Mr Blair to re-establish his party's historic links with the Democrats ahead of next year's US presidential elections. Mr Blumenthal added: "I have no idea how Blair will choreograph Bush's visit but it is not going to be easy. Bush is wearing cement shoes and Blair will need to tap dance like Fred Astaire." President Clinton's right-hand man for four years said Mr Bush's popularity among US voters was tumbling over the Iraq war.
Labour MP Glenda Jackson added: "The Americans are deserting their president in their droves and Tony Blair must think twice before standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him."
Many people in Britain believe the international standing of the United States has suffered under President George W. Bush and dislike his handling of the situation in Iraq, according to an opinion poll published in London's Times newspaper. Although Britain joined the United States in waging war on Iraq, anti-Bush sentiment is strong - 49 percent believed that military action was the wrong thing to do, while 37 percent believed the opposite. The poll in Tuesday's Times showed 60 percent of Britons strongly disapprove of his handling of Iraq -- and that anti-Bush feeling is particularly high among women.
59 percent of respondents said America's standing in the world has diminished under Bush's presidency, while 60 percent disapproved of his handling of the situation in Iraq. 47 percent said Bush didn't seem up to the job of being U.S. President, while 40 percent believed Britain benefits from the close relationship between Bush and Blair. Half the public regard Blair's closeness to George Bush as bad for Britain. Next week will show the two of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder, in coverage that will be wall-to-wall.
The spectacle of Bush arriving with an entourage of up to 250 secret service agents, 15 sniffer dogs and handlers, 50 White House political aides, two motorcades of up to 20 armored vehicles each, as well as at least three aircraft and even his own personal cook, is unlikely to increase warmth toward him.
The Populus polling agency interviewed 964 adults by telephone between Nov. 7-9 for The Times survey. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.
Tony Blair was struggling last night to prevent anti-war protesters from causing a full-scale security crisis during President George Bush's state visit to London next week. Anti-Bush and anti-war campaigners remain angry that a major march will not be allowed through Whitehall and Parliament Square, the seat of Britain's government. 5,000 officers would be on duty, including all London's armed units, and all police leave had been canceled.
In a call for "mass non-violent disobedience", a collection of anti-capitalists and groups against the Iraq war have called for demonstrators to scale the walls of the palace when the president arrives in Britain next Wednesday. Non-violence is described on the protesters' website "as action which does not harm or degrade any human being". No mention is made of the confrontation with police that would inevitably follow any illegal breach of Buckingham Palace security.
Blair - America's staunch ally in the war on Iraq - defended Bush and the war despite his plummeting poll numbers. Blair used a keynote foreign policy speech on Monday to urge protesters to see both sides of the argument over Iraq. "Protest if you will. That is your democratic right," he said. "Attack the decision to go to war, but have the integrity to realize that without it, those Iraqis now tasting freedom would still be under the lash of Saddam Hussein."
Tens of thousands of protesters, including some from Europe, are expected for the visit starting next Wednesday, prompting police to mount one of London's biggest security operations. British authorities have canceled all police leave, and 3,800 officers and as many as 250 Secret Service agents will be protecting the President. It is reported that Mr Bush's entourage will number around 500 with up to 200 members of the security service. The Americans are also said to be bringing a US Marine Corps Sea King helicopter, a Black Hawk helicopter and 15 sniffer dogs.
The British media has been rife with reports that vast areas of central London would be sealed off because the White House and Downing Street wanted the president isolated from protests. The prospect of Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's closest ally in the Iraq war, together could present a tempting target for would-be attackers. A study on Tuesday said London was more at risk of attack by Islamic extremists than any other major city in Western Europe.
Anti-Bush and anti-war campaigners are furious at what they fear are police plans to stop their protest -- slated for November 20 -- from marching through Whitehall and Parliament Square, the seat of Britain's government. "It is an outrage that the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received will be given the freedom of the streets, while a movement that represents majority opinion is denied the right to protest in...the heart of government," said Lindsey German, a spokeswoman for the Stop the War Coalition.
A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard called the precautions an "unprecedented" challenge. "It's going to be a big test for the Met [the Metropolitan Police] in terms of what we have to do to prevent an attack on the President, any member of the royal family and any member of the cabinet," she said. "We have to balance preventative measures with allowing people to demonstrate in a peaceful manner," she added.
The Stop The War Coalition, which is organising a series of protests, said that, despite police plans to set up an exclusion zone, it would demand the right to march down Whitehall. The coalition, which is working with CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, said it had heard from police officers that the decision to close parts of London followed calls from the White House for the protesters to be kept away from Mr Bush. The demonstration on Thursday of next week, after Mr Bush has laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster, is expected to attract at least 100,000 people.
The tens of thousands of anti-war protesters expected to jam the British capital's streets are only adding to the security headaches for Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service. The Secret Service is demanding that a vast exclusion zone be set up around the President in central London. Police said while security would be tight, cordons would be kept to a minimum and peaceful protests allowed.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone said this week: "Any attempt to try and help Bush avoid protesters would be inconceivable. To create a situation in which up to 60,000 people would remain unseen would require a shutdown of central London which is just unacceptable. We are not having any of that. I have to see demonstrators all the time. It is part of the great joy of politics." The mayor also said that Londoners should not have to pick up the £4m policing bill.
Business groups also expressed concerns. "As far as we can see, substantial parts of the center of town will be closed down, and this will deter people from coming to London. It seems likely to hurt retail business," said Dan Bridgett, a spokesman for the London Chamber of Commerce."
Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition said that "it is an outrage that the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received will be given the freedom of the streets."
Anti-war protesters claim that US authorities have demanded a rolling "exclusion zone" around President George Bush during his visit, as well as a ban on marches in parts of central London. The Metropolitan Police banned the Parliament Square and Whitehall route, which can be enforced for such a purpose when Parliament is in session, by the use of Sessional Orders. A police source added: "It is perfectly normal to use Sessional Orders to stop demonstrations in certain areas when Parliament is sitting."
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said: "The security surrounding the Presidential visit is a matter being discussed between the American authorities, the Foreign office and the Home office. We don't want to stop the public from exercising their legitimate right to protest. We are trying to find a reasonable agreement on this."
MPs supporting the protests say demonstrations have been allowed while Parliament was sitting, and, in any case, it was unlikely it will be doing so on the day of the proposed march. George Galloway, the MP expelled from New Labour over his opposition to the Iraq war, said "What makes the whole matter ludicrous is that on Thursday next week, when the main march takes place, we don't think Bush is even going to be in London. We think he will be in Sedgefield with Tony Blair. We are not blaming the police. We have had no problem with them in previous marches. In our biggest march we had up to two million people, and the number of arrests was lower than on an average Saturday. But the Metropolitan Police are having to cope with a hidden hand which stretches from Washington via Downing Street."
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP, said: "[The police] are under pressure from the Americans, and the losers appear to be people of Britain who want to show their opposition to the Iraq war."
The Stop The War Coalition said yesterday that it had been told by the police that it would not be allowed to demonstrate in Parliament Square and Whitehall next Thursday - a ban it said it was determined to resist. The coalition says that it has also been told by British officials that American officials want a distance kept between Mr Bush and protesters, for security reasons and to prevent their appearance in the same television shots.
Organisers say they expect between 50,000 and 70,000 people for the biggest protest against a visiting head of state. Andrew Burgin, of the Anti-War Coalition, said: "We have refused to sign off the agreement over Parliament Square and Whitehall, and we shall certainly also refuse to do so on this whole idea of an exclusion zone." He said: "If there is no agreement by next week, we have a potentially highly risky situation with so many protesters in the centre of London."
Livingstone hosts anti-war party
Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, encouraged the anti-war protests by saying he had arranged a Peace Reception for prominent opponents of the war and subsequent "occupation" of Iraq, next Wednesday midway through the president's stay. His anti-war party, costing £8,000 of taxpayers' money, has caused consternation at Downing Street. An upbeat and unapologetic Mr Livingstone said yesterday that the event would bring prominent peace-minded people together and serve as a powerful anti-war "statement". "I'm confining myself to putting on here a reception for those people who take an alternative view, representatives of the peace movement, Muslim organisations and Americans who disagree with George Bush's policies so that they can mingle amongst themselves and make a statement."
It has infuriated Mr Blair who has been busy trying to lure the Left-wing Mayor of London - expelled from the Labour Party three years ago for standing as an independent in the mayoral race - back into the Labour fold in a gesture of conciliation to the Left.
"There is no intention to spare anyone's embarrassment. We have been under no pressure to do so," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter. "There will be no exclusion zones. He (Bush) could quite easily come into contact with demonstrators."
Giving Tony the Parthian Shot
Blair said Monday that he accepted many people were opposed to the war, but insisted they should support attempts to restore stability and order to Iraq.
He also conceded that Bush's November 19-21 visit would spark protests, but defended the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to bring democracy to the Middle Eastern nation.
"In eight days time, President Bush makes his state visit to the United Kingdom," Blair said in a foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor of London's annual banquet. "For many the script of this visit has already been written. There will be demonstrations. His friends wonder at the timing, his enemies rub their hands at what they see as the potential embarrassment. I believe this is exactly the right time for the president of the United States to come."
What Would Dumbya Dubya Do?
If all of the handling of these British protesters was left up to George W. Bush, would this be the strategy?
BAGHDAD, Nov. 11 — American soldiers handcuffed and firmly wrapped masking tape around an Iraqi man's mouth as they arrested him on Tuesday for speaking out against occupation troops.
Asked why the man had been arrested and put into the back of a Humvee vehicle on Tahrir Square, the commanding officer told Reuters at the scene: ''This man has been detained for making anti-coalition statements.'' He refused to say what the man said. Another U.S. soldier swore at Iraqis as he ordered them to move back. School teachers and young students looked on.
The troops had earlier closed off the sprawling square with barbed wire to search for home-made bombs, which along with rocket-propelled grenades have killed 153 American soldiers since major combat was declared over on May 1.
U.S. politicians and military commanders often say they toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein so that Iraqis can enjoy free speech and democracy after years of iron-fisted rule.
A U.S. military spokesman said he had no immediate information on the incident.
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