| Cherie Blair (left) and Laura Bush at the White House on Friday. (Reuters)
Washington, April 16: As far as external affairs ministers go, Yashwant Sinha is in good company!
What the US secretary of state Colin Pow ell did to him last month by springing a surprise on Pakistan’s “major non-Nato ally” status within hours of being feted and praised in New Delhi, President George W. Bush has done to his steadfast ally Tony Blair.
Just two days before the British Prime Minister’s arrival here for a crisis meeting with Bush on Iraq, the US President snubbed Blair by going back on a promise he made last year to work for a solution in West Asia, which had at least a semblance of justice.
Touting that promise, Blair had persuaded a divided Labour party to support the war in Iraq in the run up to hostilities against Saddam Hussein. Belatedly, under intense pressure from Whitehall, the White House then came up with a road map for peace which hardly lived up to its name. But on Wednesday, Bush practically tore up his own road map when he authorised what no US President has done before: allow Israel to unilaterally change its borders and refuse the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
Like Powell in New Delhi en route to Islamabad last month, Bush did this without consulting Blair to whom he had sworn otherwise in return for supporting a change in regime in Baghdad.
Today, appearing along with Blair at the White House, Bush, however, made a valiant effort to salvage Anglo-American unity. Like Bush administration officials who belatedly offered India the same “major non-Nato ally” status as Pakistan. In a major change of policy, Bush said he would support any UN plan for an interim government in Iraq to assume power on June 30.
But it was cold comfort for Blair who appeared unusually distracted at the media interaction and conceded at one point that it was a “difficult moment”. Blair persuaded Bush to agree that the “quartet” the UN, Russia, the European Union and the US should meet, possibly at month end in Berlin, to discuss the new plans for West Asia peace.
According to accounts by knowledgeable diplomats, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister Nabil Shaath and Yasser Arafat’s representative here, Hassan Abdel Rahman, frantically telephoned British foreign minister Jack Straw as Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was boarding his flight to Washington on Tuesday to convey their information that Bush would agree to redraw Israel’s borders. The Palestinians also got through to Blair.
When the British got in touch with the Americans with their concerns, they were told only in ambiguous terms of how Bush planned to deal with Sharon’s plans to stay on some West Bank settlements in perpetuity.
To be fair, American sources say the Bush position was not concretised until the night before a joint Israeli-US press conference on Wednesday which exposed the notion that Blair had influence on Bush.
These sources also maintain that unlike in the snub administered to Sinha, Powell is not to blame. The secretary of state fought hard to avoid changing America’s historical position on the Arab-Israeli problem.
But in the end, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom Sharon met soon after his arrival here, prevailed. She advised Bush, according sources here, that getting Jewish-American support in a shaky presidential election was more important than keeping his promise to Blair.