By Kerry Capell
Hours after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the biggest gamble of his political career by declaring that Britain would "stand shoulder to shoulder with the American people."
Since then, Blair has engaged in whirlwind rounds of shuttle diplomacy across Europe and the Middle East to shore up support for the international coalition. The task hasn't been easy. His vocal backing for the U.S.-led war irritated Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, while his call for the establishment of a Palestinian state irked Israel. Even back home, Blair faced criticism from the country's sizable Muslim community and anti-war advocates within the media and his own Labor Party.
With the military battle entering a new phase, however, there are signs that America and its No. 1 ally are actually fighting two very different wars. While the U.S. fixates on the immediate goal of finding Osama bin Laden, Britain is focused on what is potentially an even more difficult task -- rebuilding Afghanistan.
Although the U.S. has been loath to commit to anything smacking of nation-building, Blair views it as "Britain's obligation." Indeed, since September 11, a continuous discussion has been going on in Britain about how the West's past failure to provide consistent humanitarian and economic aid to the developing world is at the root of the recent terrorist attacks. Blair used a Labor Party conference in the beginning of October to acknowledge that the West had abandoned Afghanistan after its war against Russia in the 1980s. He promised: "We will not make that mistake again."
In recent days, the British are increasingly wondering if the U.S. shares Blair's commitment. Even at the start of the conflict, Blair was portrayed in the British press as a restraining influence on President Bush. Now, with British troops on standby and a worrying leadership vacuum in Afghanistan, it's becoming clear that Britain is more eager than the U.S. to terminate the bombing and begin the process of political and economic reconstruction.
While Downing Street is adamant that the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain is stronger than ever, media speculation has it that Britain is getting sidelined. "Do not dither with our boys, Mr. President," blasted British tabloid The Mirror in a Nov. 20 article blaming President Bush for "stranding 120 Royal Marines" at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and reneging on plans to send in additional troops.
Besides the confusion over the timing and extent of ground-force deployment, other tensions are emerging. The British press has portrayed the U.S. as lacking attention to humanitarian aid and reluctant to take an activist role in restarting peace talks in the Middle East, which the British and most European governments view as key to maintaining the support of moderate Arab states. And concerns are growing in Britain over the morality of cluster and daisy-cutter bombs, the ongoing risk to civilians, and the legitimacy of targeting Afghanistan when none of the terrorists were Afghans.
Now, with the fall of Kabul and the retreat of the Taliban, debate is focused on the wisdom of giving the Northern Alliance so much leeway. Any jubilation over the "liberation" of Kabul has been tempered with the recognition that the Northern Alliance has an equally unsavory past.
In contrast to the U.S., where the Pentagon prevented the Western media from seeing satellite photos depicting unintentional strikes on civilians, the British media, most notably the BBC World Service, have been far more evenhanded in their coverage.
As the media focuses on the perceived strains within the alliance, a real danger exists that unless a coherent strategy is agreed upon soon, Blair could face a backlash at home. At present, it suits his political purposes to be Bush's key troubleshooter. Some conspiracy theorists even postulate that Bush and Blair have a tacit agreement that in exchange for Britain's support for the war, the Prime Minister will have a key role in shaping the peace process. But first they need to figure out how to finish the war.
Capell is London correspondent for BusinessWeek