Requests for a one-word answer from a politician seldom meet with success.
But Gordon Brown, who on June 27 replaced Tony Blair as the United Kingdom’s prime minister, stepped up to the plate in that morning’s London Independent.
The newspaper, which has been particularly critical of British involvement in Iraq, had solicited questions from its readers to put to Mr. Brown on the first day of his premiership.
“In an answer of one word, and with the benefit of hindsight, was it wrong to invade Iraq?” asked Simon O’Connor of Liverpool.
Mr. Brown’s response:
The man who has served for ten years as Mr. Blair’s finance minister rarely provides such unambiguous moments.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Blair have long had a tense, querulous relationship, and Mr. Brown’s personal complexity has become legendary around Westminster.
Questions about what he is really up to have fascinated London’s press and politicos for years.
Now, as he succeeds the man who was the Bush administration’s most vital ally in Europe, his plans have become Topic A in American foreign policy circles:
Will Mr. Brown undertake a dramatic change of course?
The President, at least, seems relatively unconcerned about the possibility.
In a rare interview published on June 27 in the London Sun, George Bush jovially admitted that he had earlier told Mr. Blair, “I hope you can stay out my term.”
Lest this should cause offence to the new man in Number 10 Downing Street, however, Mr. Bush added:
“Tony has been very gracious about Gordon Brown to me. Gordon came here [in April] and he wasn’t the image of the dour Scotsman at all! He was relaxed. It was a good meeting.”
But others in Washington don’t share the president’s insouciance. In conservative circles, there is acute concern that Mr. Brown could pull all British troops out of Iraq and, in so doing, leave the administration isolated on the world stage.
Congressman Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph last month, “The American view is that he’s a much weaker political leader than Blair. There’s the fear in Washington that he won’t be as strong an ally.”
Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the same newspaper that an all-out British withdrawal would “severely undercut the U.S.”
Mr. Gardiner added: “The anti-war Left in Washington is looking to Brown to do them a favor.”
They may be waiting a long time. British troop levels in Iraq will be reduced to around 5,000 shortly, but that move was decided months ago. Mr. Brown has made no definitive commitment to a further drop-off.
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote two weeks ago that he had been told by a senior official in the Bush administration that “Brown has used ‘multiple channels’, including meetings between [British Defense] secretary Des Browne and his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates, to reassure the Americans that no surprises are on the way.”
In a major address on terrorism in London last October, Mr. Brown insisted, “There should be no future for anti-Americanism in Europe. Indeed, we should explicitly state that American values and European values are as one.”
That statement seemed to buttress claims that the new prime minister is instinctively better disposed to the U.S. than to Europe. Aides to Mr. Brown describe him as a committed Atlanticist. By contrast, he is thought to be tepid about further European integration.
On a personal level, Mr. Brown may have a better developed grasp of American political sensibilities than even Mr. Blair. He has vacationed in Cape Cod over many years and counts former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as well as Democratic strategist Bob Shrum among his friends.
A generalized warm feeling toward the U.S. need not translate into backing for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, of course. And divining Mr. Brown’s intentions is, as ever, a risky business.
During his years in charge of his nation’s purse-strings, he seemed to be ruled by pragmatism above all else.
The war in Iraq is immensely unpopular with British voters, Mr. Blair has been routinely derided as Mr. Bush’s poodle, and a recent survey suggested that only one-third of Britons now believe that America is a force for good in the world.
It would be politically foolhardy for Mr. Brown not to take these realities into account as he plots his first days as prime minister.
But creating an impression of greater independence and fundamentally changing policy toward the U.S. are two very different things.
The notion that Mr. Brown is significantly more left-wing than Mr. Blair often seems to be based on his ascetic, rumpled image rather than anything he has actually said.
Even when he admitted late last year that “we could have done things better” in Iraq, he denied that he had had any serious personal doubts about the invasion. Whatever mistakes were made, he emphasized, came “after the liberation of Iraq – and it was the liberation of Iraq – from Saddam Hussein.”
Such sentiments sit uneasily with those on the Left who have invested their hopes in Mr. Brown. But perhaps they should know better. After all, when the former (and now deceased) British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook published his memoirs in late 2003, he noted that in the immediate run-up to war Mr. Brown had delivered a “long and passionate statement of support” for the prime minister’s strategy in a cabinet meeting.
Mr. Brown is perhaps the shrewdest politician in Britain. He knows the electoral benefits to be gleaned from carving out a sense of distance between 10 Downing Street and the White House.
On matters of substance rather than style, however, he is unlikely to demand real change. And rumors of the death of the special relationship should, in time, prove to be greatly exaggerated.