"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tories go to Washington

"You can forget about meeting the president. Don't bother coming. You are not meeting him," or so Karl Rove is said to have told Michael Howard, the last leader of the British Conservative party, in a February 2004 phone conversation. Apocryphal or otherwise, the quote summed up what had became a frosty relationship between the Bush administration and the Tories. The deterioration in traditional Republican-Conservative ties (symbolised by the close relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980's - however different those two may have been in character) can be dated to at least the last U.K. election campaign and to the fallout from the Iraq war. The Tories (admittedly under a previous leader) supported the prime minister over the war. Then, last spring, Michael Howard began to criticise the prime minister's alleged malfeasance regarding intelligence and the handling of the occupation. The first criticism, particularly, struck the incumbents in Washington as opportunistic and disloyal.

Today, William Hague, George Osborne, and Liam Fox, three of David Cameron's chief lieutenants, depart London for Washington and a series of meetings with, among others, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Bernanke and John Snow. Also scheduled is a meeting with John McCain, probable candidate for the presidency in 2008 and senate majority leader Bill Frist; Madeleine Albright and a group of Democrats are also to receive the Tory contingent.

Well, what of it? This isn't Nixon going to China. The Tories hype that this is "government-to-future-government" stuff is appealing on the surface but can be discounted for analytical purposes. The Tories have, after all, something of a mountain to climb to be elected next time out. Seemingly Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will be on the menu for discussion. Mr. Fox, shadow defence secretary and arch-neo-conservative (whatever merit that term has), will doubtless impress on his hosts that the Tories view the emerging crisis of Iran's nuclear ambitions as gravely as Washington hawk's seem to. Mr. Cameron has spoken of the need to promote democracy in Iran, but Ben Hall (in yesterday's Financial Times) was probably going a little far to describe him as a neo-conservative. Events and decisions have been too minor and too few in Cameron's time as leader for much of a pattern of thinking to emerge. It is unclear with which - if any - foreign policy inclination with the Conservative party is most aligned. (He voted for the Iraq war, which is something of a bellwether. That puts him firmly in the majority of his parliamentary party colleagues.) Of course Mr Blair had little by way of clear foreign policy expertise or inclination when he assumed the Labour leadership. But he has since worked well with U.S. presidents of different parties and temperaments. That observation reminds us that so much of political relations is personal.

One discordant note may come tomorrow Thursday. Mr. Hague is due to make a speech pressing for American "global leadership" on the issue of climate change. This follows Mr. Bush's State of the Union admission that the U.S. (or perhaps more particularly its economy) is "addicted to oil". Given the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto protocol and binding emission targets more generally (I use the term binding advisedly), Mr. Hague may be well advised to couch his language in vague and aspirational terms, preferrably emphasising the technology- and market-led approaches that have found favour with Mr. Bush and, especially, Messrs McCain and Lieberman.

If the delegation are successful, Bush will meet Cameron later this year or in 2007. By then we may have a clearer idea of the substantive policy ideas behind Mr. Cameron's "compassionate conservative" self-description. The print media headlines regarding are all about "building bridges" and "mending fences". The policy landscape on the Conservative side of the bridge/fence is in something of a transition at present. The most interesting questions, for now, in the Republican-Conservative relationship relate to the Conservatives and the development their policy agenda under their dynamic new leader. The Washington meetings this week are mostly for the cameras and for personal relationship-building.


Blogger Kevin Breathnach said...

Interesting piece on an equally interesting topic. It's one of those meetings that you'd love to be a fly-on-the-wall for, isn't it? Perhaps the Tories would have been wise to send Michael Gove - whose wit is akin to that of Hague's and whose politics are probably better. That said, it's really quite a strong group they are sending.

Wed Feb 15, 06:08:00 PM GMT  

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