America's ambassador to the world

Tony Blair is waging a one-man war, ignoring both the cabinet and the Foreign Office in order to prove his unflagging support for George Bush.

 

The wartime fad from America that is sweeping Britain is to merge our leaders' title and name and then snap them out like a boxer spitting teeth. Just as we have "President-George-Bush" in Washington, so we have "Prime-Minister-Tony-Blair" in London. The traditional modes of address - "Mr Tony Blair, the Prime Minister", or "that bastard" - are forgotten. "Prime Minister Tony Blair" is all the rage in Westminster and Fleet Street, but I doubt if the fashion will go global. To the rest of the world, he is not "Prime Minister Tony Blair" but "American Ambassador Tony Blair".

No prime minister before him has identified Britain so completely with a foreign power. The cheerleaders of the "war" on terrorism support their case with the sanctified precedent of the 1941 alliance between Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt. What the myth-makers of the "shoulder-to-shoulder" spirit either forget or do not know is that Roosevelt and Churchill had competing foreign policies along with common purposes. To put it bluntly, Roosevelt's policy was to dismember and supplant the British empire, while Churchill's was to preserve it. This time around, Britain doesn't seem to have a foreign policy it can call its own. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has become a reclusive figure, the Howard Hughes of the political class. The Foreign Office has been reduced from a great department of state to a branch office of 10 Downing Street. As Blair travels from Pakistan to Moscow to the Gulf, everyone believes he is speaking for an America whose own president lacks the communication skills international diplomacy requires.

Support for America is a relationship "special" only in its unique subservience. The servility was displayed in embarrassing detail when the HMS Triumph, HMS Superb and HMS Trafalgar fired their cruise missiles into Afghanistan. The "British" bombs were greeted by defence correspondents with gurgles of enthusiasm. Not one dwelt on the absurdity of the navy responding to an attack on America by ordering the launch of missiles, bought from the US for £500,000 apiece, at targets chosen by American commanders before returning to the Treasury to ask for more millions to buy more American missiles to fire at an American's command. Wouldn't it be cheaper to let America fire its missiles without making us buy them first?

British involvement doesn't merely endanger the luckless citizens of Afghanistan. Like so many others, I had resolved to be coy about the consequences for "homeland security" of British subservience - no one wants to be called a coward in wartime. I changed my mind when a New York radio station phoned. "Aren't the British scared that Blair is turning them into a target for Bin Laden?" asked a concerned interviewer. Well, yes, many are, I replied, astonished that broadcasters in New York of all cities were asking questions that the BBC dodged. You often heard muttering to the effect of "Couldn't Tone tone it down a bit?" But in private only.

Prudent fear - or "appeasement", as it is now called - probably won't help us. There is not a Muslim or infidel country on the planet that the Bin Laden network could not find a theological justification for terrorising. Britain, like everyone else, has a national interest in stopping fanaticism. The example of France is salutary to those who think otherwise. French detectives are sure that the network's European members were planning to crash a plane into the US embassy in Paris. France's opposition to American hegemony would not have spared her.

Still, Britain is sticking its neck out further than anyone else, and asking for nothing in return. Before 11 September, we had an independent foreign policy, which might have been converted into a shopping list to present to Washington. Britain supported the Kyoto Protocol, which doesn't appear important at the moment, what with this and that. But we also wanted to enforce strikingly contemporary treaties to establish an international criminal court and effective controls on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. An anarchic America opposed us in each instance. The Republicans remain determined to stop international law constraining American power, special relationships and the utter irrelevance of their Star Wars fantasy, in a time of suicide bombers notwithstanding. We aren't pushing them to back down.

Russia, by contrast, is behaving like a self-confident nation. Its exposed southern flank gives the country good reason to rally to Bush. But Russia has not forgotten its other national interests. The president, Vladimir Putin, demands concessions on Star Wars and a free hand in the Caucasus. Like him or not, he is behaving like a classic diplomat who knows that if one power wants help from another, it cannot be surprised when the other side presents the bill for the quid pro quo. Blair is shelling out the quids while being too well-bred to ask for vulgar quos. Washington must be right when it says that Britain is America's truest friend.

Many in Whitehall fret about where the Prime Minister is going. This is his war, driven by his prejudices and ideals. Cautious figures in the cabinet, parliament and Foreign Office have been undercut. The ossified cabinet and parliament have not mattered for years, but the emasculation of the Foreign Office was quick and brutal.

Jack Straw had his authority demolished when, visiting Iran in September, he dared to mention Palestine. Ariel Sharon exploded. To raise the subject proved that Straw was a definite appeaser and probable anti-Semite. Straw was to fly on to Israel to meet Prime Minister Sharon, the hero of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon cancelled the meeting and Blair, the statesman, came to the rescue. He calmed Sharon, Downing Street told the press, and persuaded him to see Straw after all. The coverage could not have been more pleasing to Blair. Here was the PM, surrounded by pygmies. Just like Robin Cook before him, Straw wasn't up to the job. No one but Blair could be trusted to guide policy and run the war.

When Straw arrived back for his first cabinet meeting, a cheery Blair told him that, by the time he called Israel, Sharon had already changed his mind and decided to see Straw in any event. We tried to persuade the media to abandon the "Blair saves the day" stories, he continued, but they wouldn't buy it. I think I can say with confidence that no one in the cabinet believed the spinners had tried anything of the sort.

So there you have it. A prime minister who discards parliamentary democracy and cabinet government, then spins against his colleagues so that his indiscriminate love for the United States can override national interests. Britain reduced to being the American poodle my comrades on the left always said it was. Perhaps it is time to embrace the Pinters and Pilgers as brothers and accept that, although they got Kosovo horribly wrong, they have Afghanistan just right.

The bombing will exacerbate the famine and produce a self-defeating calamity. Allowing hundreds of thousands of innocents to perish makes the stated war aim of removing the causes of terrorism in the Islamic world a sick joke. Nevertheless, it would be refreshing if the left could get its facts right, just for once.

You can argue convincingly that Britain is subservient to America, as I hope I have shown, but a distinct British foreign policy remains. The snag is that no one has the faintest idea if it will work.

I've had its proponents swear blind that Blair has restrained Bush. People who ought to know say that gushing public praise allowed the private Prime Minister to nudge Bush away from the coterie of total-war intellectuals around Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, a clique that includes the transplanted American nationalist Iain Duncan Smith. Few ministers and civil servants overestimate British influence: American power is great and its willingness to listen is negligible. Yet my new friends insist that history will record that Blair helped swing support behind Colin Powell's limiting strategy, and urged the virtues of multilateral security on Bush.

They cite Jack Straw's visit to Iran as the best example. All sane politicians want to normalise relations with the reformers in Iran, and give them what help they can in the struggle with the vigorous remnants of Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy. The demented American right is determined that Shi'a Iran must remain an enemy, even though the Taliban persecute the Persian Shi'a minority and Bin Laden condemns them as heretics who must die along with just about everyone else. Robin Cook was booked to visit Iran three times between 1999 and 2001. On each occasion, the tour was cancelled because of pressure from Israel and America. Straw, however, got through to Tehran, and now Iran may well be a partner in reshaping Afghanistan.

I was a bit stunned to hear that a British foreign secretary can be instructed by Washington and Jerusalem on who he can and can't see, but the point that the government's supporters make without a blush for their nation's client status is that quiet diplomacy works.

The real test of British independence will come when it fails. Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister, wonders what will happen if Bin Laden is not found and the ruin of Afghanistan drags on. Britain told the United Nations that it opposed attacking Iraq. America left its options open. Will Britain still stand shoulder to shoulder with the US if Powell's strategy collapses and Rumsfeld and the rest ignite the Middle East by widening the war?

The immediate cause of tension is America's attitude to the Northern Alliance, or United Front. Speaking at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, Straw said that "The domination of Mullah Omar and his faction cannot simply be replaced by another narrow faction, because no regime will be sustainable unless it commands broad consent among those whom it governs, and moves from being a regime to become a government."

No equivocation there. But the US military has fallen for the temptation to use the unrepresentative and murderous United Front as an alternative to risking the lives of American ground troops. Will Britain go along if US air support allows the Front to capture Kabul?

I can't imagine Blair standing up to the US under any circumstances. A Labour politician who can abandon his Democrat allies and agree to Republican demands that British bases be appropriated for Star Wars is incapable of resistance. As far as I can tell, no one in government knows what is going to happen, whether we will carry on with America, or how we might break away from it. Everyone is nervous. The most optimistic comment I heard was: "If you're not worried, you're mad."