An allergic reaction to a ground war

I was the guest at the house of a well-known Democratic senator last Monday evening. In his garden, talk among fellow party-goers immediately turned to the burning issue of the day in Washington: allergies. In case you didn't know it, Washington is "the allergy capital of the world". That, at least, is what the "allergists" say - who, needless to say, are making a fortune by ordering expensive tests and then prescribing antihistamines that you can buy over the counter in the UK. Every self-respecting Washingtonian elitist has his or her very own "allergist" these days, all to ward off this latest peril to the nation's well-being.

So I rather spoilt the mood, I fear, by changing the subject: will there be a ground war? Blank stares all round greeted me. Kosovo? Ah, that's yesterday's news now. Practically everybody there, I suspect, would have been mildly surprised to hear that Robin Cook was flying in "to stiffen American resolve". "Your name, sir?" I can imagine the State Department security man asking him. "Cook? Sorry, I don't have that name listed, sir." (This did actually happen to Malcolm Rifkind when he was Britain's defence minister, and to Sir Robin Renwick, last-but-one ambassador here: both were refused entry to a White House reception because their names were not on a list and they had to beat an ignominious retreat in the British Embassy's green Rolls-Royce. So much for the "special relationship", eh?)

By the time the drink was flowing - this was an unusually opulent party, not the routine staid and sober DC evening - I did hear one joke: "We're busy bombing foreign embassies, convoys of refugees, hospitals, bridges, villages and innocent people," one man said. "Don't you get the feeling that Dan Quayle is already president?"

It got the biggest laugh of the evening from those around me - and said all you need to know about current inside-the-beltway attitudes to the Nato operation, seen (as always) as a faraway US mission that has been botched by Bill Clinton. School shootings, the resignation of the US Treasury secretary, Netanyahu's fall, allergies: all now take precedence over Kosovo here, as poor Cook has doubtless already discovered. The only reference to the conflict on the front page of last Tuesday's Washington Post was a piece from Buenos Aires - saying how much US bombs are stirring up anti-US feeling there.

It cuts far more ice in the citadels of power here, I'm afraid, when Gerhard Schroder declares that sending in ground troops is "unthinkable" and that "this is our position and it won't change in the future". In make-believe Britain, Tony Blair's pro-war rhetoric may still seem to have meaning - but Schroder and Germany are considered far more important and influential allies here. I read a poll last week which says that 75 per cent of Britons, presumably whipped up by Blair's nostalgic evocation of Britain as a country retaining a power and influence that has actually long since vanished, now want Nato's ground troops to invade Serbia. In Germany, precisely the same proportion of the population are now opposed to a ground war.

The result is that Blair is beginning to make Britain look very foolish indeed on the international stage, as well as increasingly inconsequential. Alongside the lions of the US and Germany he does, indeed, seem like the mouse that roars away - but only to his craven domestic audience and (as far as the rest of the western world is concerned) ineffectively so, and to growing derision. He has achieved the near impossibility of leading Britain into isolation within Nato, differing publicly over ground troops not only with the US and Germany, but with important allies including France, Italy and Canada. Having misjudged Bill Clinton's intentions and blindly led his own country up the garden path over Kosovo, Blair has now landed Britain with the worst of both worlds: while to much of the developing world the UK remains the obedient poodle of the great US infidel, respect for Britain within the heartlands of the US is being eroded because of Blair's unconvincing, would-be Churchill act.

He will, I'm sure, manage to wriggle out of it. The US peace-seeking negotiations continue apace: Viktor Chernomyrdin shuttles to Helsinki to see Strobe Talbott (Madeleine Notverybright's deputy) and the (increasingly important) peace- brokering Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, then on to Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. The result of the deal will be that Blair will be able to tell the British media he has won his battle for ground troops; what will not be emphasised is that they will go in as peacekeepers rather than as the invading, war-like force he has repeatedly advocated. Expect some clever wordplay and spin to prepare Britain for this abrupt reversal and turnaround of Blairite policy.

There's always a possibility, though, that Clinton and Notverybright will also shift gears, given their penchant for drifting into new, ill-thought-out policies. But Americans have already seen the suffering in Kosovo, and have now moved on to whatever's next on the agenda - to allergies, say. With the long-hot summer under way in Washington, Clinton is in no mood to upset the apple-cart of economic prosperity and complacency. Unless, that is, the monumental charm and charisma of Robin Cook - if he has been able to talk his way past the doormen here - will have convinced the Americans, Germans, French, Canadians, Italians et al that they are wrong and that Cool Britannia has been right all along. Perhaps Clinton, Schroder, Chirac and co will crawl away, dazzled by our Foreign Secretary's oratorical persuasiveness.

I doubt it, somehow.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning