George Bush in London: Among Friends, Actually

Americans were liable to get the wrong idea as they watched George W. Bush's reception in Britain this week. Protests against American and British policy in Iraq, and the policing necessary to supervise them, were bringing London to a standstill as this column went to press. And there was no lack of anti-American sentiment for newspapers and television networks to report back across the Atlantic—gleaned either from the judiciously chosen man on the Clapham omnibus or from even higher elevations. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Harold Pinter, widely regarded as Britain's best living playwright, had said, "No nation has ever been so detested as the United States today."

So much for the close alliance between America and Britain? Hardly. The protesters represent a slice of opinion in the country, but certainly not the majority. Pinter—quotable as he may be, and doubtless esteemed by much of America's intelligentsia—is regarded as a ranting fool by most of those who are familiar with his views in Britain. Did he actually mean to say that America today is more detested than Nazi Germany, for heaven's sake? Well, apparently he did. The man is nuts (and his plays are overrated).

As a militantly pro-American Brit, I was pleased, and even a little surprised, to see just how far detached the protesters—never mind madmen such as Pinter—really are from opinion at large. This week, The Guardian published a new poll on views about Bush's visit and Iraq. The Guardian is a leftist and moderately anti-American newspaper. Presumably, it hoped to tap wells of British hostility to President Bush. It came up dry, even though Bush—in Britain, as in America—is a polarizing figure who tends to bring out the rabid in those who disagree with him.

Asked, "Do you welcome George Bush's state visit, or would you prefer he did not come?" 43 percent said they welcomed it, against 36 percent who said they did not. Bearing in mind that my own answer would have been "prefer he did not come"—since I fail to see what purpose the visit serves and since the demonstrators' moronic hooting is wearing on a busy day—this hardly demonstrates a widespread visceral hostility to America's leader.

Read on, and The Guardian has additional cause to regret paying for this research. "The survey shows that public opinion in Britain is overwhelmingly pro-American with 62 percent of voters believing that the United States is 'generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world.' " The paper continued, "Only 15 percent of voters agree with the idea that America is the 'evil empire' in the world."

And support for allied actions in Iraq has rallied. Backing for the war while it was in progress mostly fluctuated between 55 percent and 65 percent. It dropped to less than 50 percent in July, when David Kelly, a government expert on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, committed suicide. His death and the subsequent judicial inquiry drew attention to a pattern of deception and misdirection in the case the government put before the public for going to war. Just before Bush's visit this week, polls indicated that 43 percent of voters thought that the United States and Britain "were right to take military action against Iraq"; a slightly larger number, 45 percent, said that the war was wrong.

The Guardian's newest poll says that the balance has swung back in favor: 47 percent say the action was right, and 41 percent say wrong. Best of all, fully two-thirds of voters think that "British and American troops should not pull out of Iraq now, but instead stay until the situation is more stable."

In a previous column, I argued that the failure of prewar intelligence in Iraq was far more of a setback for America and its allies than most advocates of the war against Iraq seemed willing to admit. This was not so much because better intelligence might have altered the calculation about whether to attack. (It probably would have, but the point is debatable. Despite the allies' worsening losses in Iraq, and mounting difficulties in stabilizing the country, it would be difficult to argue that Iraq and the Middle East would be better or safer today with Saddam's tyranny still in place.) The real cost of the intelligence failure was the loss of credibility it inflicted on the administration in its effort to design a new and more assertive set of responses to the threat from rogue states and international terrorism.

Pre-emption, the cornerstone of this new approach, is in my view certainly going to be necessary to deal with these dangers—but the requirements for pre-emption are demanding. They include trust in America's leaders and in its allies' leaders, and accurate information about our enemies. What happened in Iraq has somewhat undermined the first and shows, even more ominously, that we sorely lack the second.

So far as trust is concerned, however, these new opinion-poll findings suggest that the damage—in Britain, at least—may not be that serious after all. Continuing support for the war from half of the country, despite the fact that a much larger proportion of Britons do think they were misled (intentionally or otherwise) in the run-up to the war, suggests that the need to deal firmly with dangerous states such as Iraq is recognized, despite the difficulties. And the failure of any meaningful "troops-out" movement to take shape in Britain is even more encouraging: It suggests a willingness to shoulder the burden of responsibility that is bound to follow any recourse to pre-emptive action in cases such as Iraq.

The allies' apparent errors over Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction make it all the more important to succeed in stabilizing and rebuilding the country. The justification for the war now rests much less on the removal of any direct threat to American and British security, and much more on the wider security (not to mention political and humanitarian) benefits that would flow from the creation of an exemplary post-Saddam democracy in the Middle East. If America's postwar strategy in Iraq collapses, then, given the failure of prewar intelligence and the doubts which it arouses about the honesty of our leaders, the barely formed doctrine of pre-emption is in danger of collapsing with it.

The issue, with its momentous implications for our future security, is still in the balance. Last weekend, the administration again recast its postwar plans for stabilizing Iraq. Up to then, the White House had insisted that the first task was to write a constitution, and only after that hold national elections. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority would have continued to run the country in the meantime—on a timetable that would certainly have stretched beyond the end of next year.

The new plan aims to wind up the authority's vice-regal powers by next summer. After that, a provisional government, itself established by an Afghan-style assembly, will run the country. It will be composed of delegates selected to represent the country's various regions and religious and ethnic groups. A constitutional convention, a referendum on the constitution, and proper democratic elections are all to come later. Europe and the United Nations had earlier urged such a course on the administration, and were told to forget it.

So the suspicion must be that the change of strategy has been guided less by Iraq's needs and more by the president's. Handing over power to a sovereign Iraqi government before next year's presidential vote is unlikely to harm Bush's re-election chances: Whatever the underlying difficulties, this transfer would look like progress, as America begins to shake free of its Iraq commitments.

If the Bush administration really has jeopardized long-term success for short-term political advantage, it would be deplorable: Too much is at stake beyond Iraq, let alone inside its borders, to take chances of that sort. But there is in fact a good case for this new approach, provided that America, with Britain and its other allies, continues to back its plan with generous aid and an unswerving effort to secure the country from the Saddamite resistance. The continuing violence in Iraq has much to do with the fear of the hitherto-dominant Sunnis that a majoritarian democracy will in practice replace their rule with a kind of Shiite tyranny over them. Such fears might be best assuaged by moving toward democracy via an assembly of delegates chosen to give their interests due weight. The plan is certainly worth a try, so long as Americans are not led to expect that the winding-up of Paul Bremer's provisional authority draws a line under the continuing heavy involvement of A! merican and allied forces in securing the country.

So the protesters in London are wrong, as well as unrepresentative. They have nothing to say about what should happen next. It is not too late for George Bush to make a success of Iraq.