Blessed are the multilateralists

13 September 2002

Tony BlairSon of a provincial Conservative Party politician, and the product of a classic public school and Oxford University education, the British prime minister is an unlikely hawk. And yet his public statements this summer mirrored more than any made by a world figure the arguments of the American unilateralists. Close observers of UK government, however, say that Blair has played a difficult and subtle role in the past year, capitalising on his reputation among the American public as the only foreign statesman to have understood their feelings following the September attacks. President Bush, keen to show that his approach to Iraq had at least some international support, has had a series of one-to-one meetings with Blair in which he was nudged towards a multilateral approach. Blair's declaration that the UK was prepared to make a 'blood sacrifice' in the American cause infuriated the British left and trade union leaders but helped secure his position as the administration's closest friend. With multilateralism under way, Blair can be expected to play an important role in helping to bridge the gap between the US and other Security Council members.

Colin PowellThe widely admired former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has struggled in the administration's first two years to keep control over American Middle East policy. The low-point was hit in April when a rambling tour of the region foundered amid the Israeli reoccupation of most of Gaza and the West Bank. A firm multilateralist shaped by America's Vietnam defeat and the success of the 1990/91 coalition to free Kuwait, Powell is set to play a key role in developing an agreed international approach to Iraq.

Prince Bandar ibn Sultan al-SaudFor two decades, the Saudi ambassador to the US has been the kingdom's public face in America. Affable and fluent, his contact book included every powerful figure in business and politics, but his influence fell to nothing this spring as the unilateralists seized control of American Middle East policy. The kingdom found it difficult acknowledging publicly that most of the 11 September hijackers were Saudi nationals, and Crown Prince Abdullah's Middle East peace plan, essentially the 1981 Fahd plan rejected by Israel two decades ago, fell on deaf American ears. On 27 August, following the notorious Murawiec presentation before the Defence Policy Board, Prince Bandar secured a one-on-one meeting with President Bush at which Saudi concerns and suggestions were aired. The kingdom's relations with the US are still in need of repair, but the shift toward multilateralism will give Riyadh the opportunity to resume its normal role as acceptable mediator between the US and the Arab world.

George Bush SeniorThe 41st president of the US has said not a word about the unilateralist versus the multilateralist debate this summer, but he may have played the most important role in setting his son on the road to congressional and international consultation. In August, a series of informed and powerful articles were published by most of his senior advisers during his period in office, most decisively from former secretary of state James Baker III. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that they were saying in public what was being said in private to George W Bush, a reformed heavy drinker and drug abuser, by his benevolent but authoritative father. Bush senior's greatest achievement as president was forging the international coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait in operation in 1991. Perhaps his greatest failure was the demise of the Madrid Middle East peace process, a multilateral approach rejected by the firmly pro-Israeli administration of President Clinton in favour of a bilateral policy in which the Palestinians and Jordan were picked off one by one. With a new multilateralism in prospect, could the vision that inspired Madrid exactly a decade ago find new life? If it does, there would be no greater vindication of the older Bush's abbreviated tenure in the White House.

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