US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seem to be trying hard to present a united front on Iraq — but to no avail. On his first official visit to the US, Mr Brown reportedly walked a fine line on questions regarding a British pullout from Iraq, opting to bracket the issue with other concerns like nuclear proliferation, climate change, global poverty, and the West Asia peace process. Although Britain has handed over security control to Iraqi forces in three of the provinces it controlled, London is undecided on withdrawing the 5000-odd British troops in the fourth province, Basra. Before setting out on his US visit, Mr Brown announced that this decision would be based on “military advice”, indicating that Britain, too, is waiting for a status report from the head of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, on attempts to quell the sectarian violence.
The Bush administration is counting on the report, due to be presented before the US Congress next month, to declare that the President’s ‘surge’ policy in Iraq is working, and ease Democratic pressure on Mr Bush. Democrats are clamouring for President Bush to come up with a military withdrawal plan with a tentative 2008 deadline. Mr Brown’s credentials as an avowed Atlanticist — who values ties with Washington — notwithstanding, he cannot afford to ignore the recent findings of a top British think-tank that reveals London’s “inability to influence the Bush Administration in any way despite the sacrifice — military, political and financial — that Britain has made”.
This makes it likely that any future British government will be far more careful in striking a balance among the views of their European and American allies. Moreover, Mr Brown is known to have been sceptical of his predecessor Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 that, for all intents and purposes, damaged Mr Blair’s reputation at home and in many places abroad. It also made the Labour Party so unpopular that it’s now a Hobson’s choice for Mr Brown to toe a more independent line before calling the next general election sometime by 2009.