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Blair faces resistance from Bush on increasing aid for Africa

WASHINGTON—As Tony Blair prepares to huddle Tuesday in Washington with his Iraq war partner, President Bush, to say that the British prime minister is having a tough year would be an understatement. And he seems likely to be disappointed again Tuesday.

Blair won a historic third term as prime minister last month, but, weighed down by his unflinching support of Bush and their war, his Labor Party saw heavy losses in Parliament and he'll govern from now on with a much smaller majority.

Next month he'll assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union just as the 25-nation league is shaken and confused about its direction after last week's rejection of its proposed constitution by French and Dutch voters.

On Tuesday, he hopes to persuade Bush to increase aid dramatically to Africa, an initiative that Blair intends to make the centerpiece of the G-8 summit he'll host next month in Scotland. Unfortunately for Blair, Bush already has dismissed the proposal as too expensive, as have German and Italian officials.

The Bush-Blair Oval Office meeting is billed as a work session to help set the agenda for the annual G-8 summit of major industrial democracies: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. Many people in Great Britain and Europe see the meeting as a test of whether Blair can win results from Washington.

"It's very important for him to document on the world stage that he can deliver something at the G-8 and as president of the European Union," said Princeton Lyman, an analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria. "It will be very damaging for him if he doesn't come away with something from the Bush administration on Africa or debt relief."

Blair could be headed for a big disappointment.

After a White House meeting last Wednesday with South African President Thabo Mbeki, Bush rejected Blair's proposal for the world's richest nations to double aid to Africa to $25 billion, saying, "It doesn't fit our budgetary process."

Blair's shaky political standing resembles those of other European leaders. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who supported the Iraq war, suffered parliamentary losses in the last election and was forced to assemble a new coalition to retain power. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a staunch opponent of the war, called for a national election this fall—one year early—after his party lost big in a key regional election. French President Jacques Chirac's approval ratings are abysmal, which contributed to the French rejecting the proposed EU constitution, which Chirac had stoutly championed.

But no leader is so closely aligned with Washington as Blair, whom some in Europe dismissively call Bush's "poodle."

Blair's proposal on aid for Africa is an effort to stand on his own and regain the stature he had before the Iraq war.

"He's trying to return to the political agenda that made him popular with Europeans: climate change, assistance to Africa," said Charles Kupchan, the director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist research center. "It's awkward timing in that the politics that Blair faces and Bush faces are running in the opposite direction. There's little incentive for Bush to go to Congress to ask for more assistance to Africa. It's going to be a tough conversation that Bush and Blair will have."

If Blair comes back empty-handed, it may confirm resentment in other European capitals that their support for Bush's war in Iraq is unappreciated.

"There's a feeling among some of the pro-war European governments that their expectation for payback has been largely unmet," Kupchan said. "It's not just a question of rewarding Blair, there's a sense of unrequited love among the pro-war European countries."

Not all analysts are pessimistic.

John C. Hulsman, a Europe specialist with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, thinks Bush will help Blair on African aid, if not now then before the G-8 leaders gather July 6 in Gleneagles, Scotland.

Hulsman said that contrary to European beliefs, Bush had responded to Blair's wishes, most notably by trying to seek a second United Nations resolution before going to war with Iraq, by becoming more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by taking a lower-profile role in dealing with Northern Ireland than former President Clinton did.

"The amazing thing about Blair that the Brits don't get is that he's about the fifth-most-important adviser to the president," Hulsman said. "President Bush is a huge believer in loyalty, and he and Blair have been through the fire together."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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