Diary - James Rubin

I am still amazed that the president hasn't figured out that Rumsfeld, exuding disdain for dissentin

My fax machine spewed out an embargoed copy of Tony Blair's speech to the Lord Mayor's banquet because BBC Radio - that unique and inspiring British institution - wanted me to comment on it after delivery. It struck me as a persuasive effort to answer those who oppose the European project and those who believe Britain has gotten too close to America.

The thing about Blair is that he is not afraid to be called defensive, which means he is prepared to explain and then reject the position of his critics. American leaders too often try to stay positive, explain the rationale of their policies but never "dignify" their opponents' arguments for fear of the charge: "He was so defensive."

I was pleased that the Prime Minister took a direct shot at Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Saying that any attempt to divide Europe into old and new was doomed to fail, Blair dismissed Rumsfeld's ill-advised effort to categorise Europeans based on whether or not they supported the Iraq war. I am still amazed that the president hasn't figured out that Rumsfeld is absolutely the worst spokesman for America abroad. By exuding disdain for dissenting voices or "weak" Europeans, Rumsfeld alienates those he should be trying to persuade. Secretary of State Colin Powell can make the same case without causing the resentment and anger that Rumsfeld does.

In any event, Blair continued to argue for Britain being the bridge between Europe and America - and with today's transatlantic rift, we need every bridge we can get. Blair took another shot at the Bush administration by expressing disbelief that American officials could really think he would allow the development of a European defence to undermine the Nato alliance. What more does Blair have to do to convince the Bush administration that he is pro-American and pro-Nato?

What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, President Bush surprised many with the diplomatic triumph of Resolution 1441, in which the UN Security Council unanimously demanded that Saddam Hussein disarm. Now the US faces growing guerrilla war in Iraq, having initiated military action before diplomacy was exhausted, before a genuine international coalition was forged and before a realistic postwar plan was made. This has left too many Europeans - even British people - outraged and resentful, and too many of our soldiers dead and wounded in Iraq.

Yes, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, but our failure to heed international opinion has caused the most needless dose of anti-Americanism in the history of transatlantic relations. And now, after months of hyping the threat of weapons of mass destruction, Bush has proclaimed that the Iraq war was really part of a Wilsonian project to bring democracy to the Middle East. Talk about a bait and switch.

Oh, irony of ironies. By invading Iraq, America has squandered the moral authority built up over years of promoting human rights, saving Muslims from slaughter in Kosovo, and belatedly in Bosnia, and containing the evil of Soviet communism. And this moral authority has been lost in the service of another moral cause - giving the peoples of the Middle East the rights and responsibilities of freedom. How will historians judge this tragic episode?

The media have been busy reporting on the potential disruption of Bush's visit and clearly salivating at the possibility that hundreds of thousands of anti-Bush protesters might take to the streets. I bet some TV producers are daydreaming about getting Bush and the Queen, or Bush and Blair, in the same camera shot as protesters. Most Americans see the British people through the person of Blair, who has been a stalwart ally and a far more eloquent explainer of the rationale for war in Iraq than Bush himself. If there are hundreds of thousands of protesters, I think many Americans will be stunned.

James P Rubin, now visiting professor at the London School of Economics, was assistant secretary of state under President Clinton