Yo Blair! What those words (plus an expletive) reveal about Bush and poodle Blair21:57pm 18th July 2006
The occasion was a grim one. The fates of millions of people were to be decided in a few days of hurried discussion about opening the second front in Western Europe during World War II.
Stalin, sinister and jovial, chided Winston Churchill for refusing to agree to have 100,000 German officers shot. The American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was ill and incoherent, scarcely able to resist the pernicious advice of his officials to be nicer to the Soviet Union and cooler to Britain.
That ill-fated meeting, the Tehran conference of 1943, was the first time that the two leaders of the free world - the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States - met the master of the Kremlin.
This week, six decades later, witnessed its direct successor: the G8 summit in St Petersburg. Again, there was no shortage of wrongheadedness, short-sightedness, timidity and cynicism at the meeting of the world's top industrial powers, whose agenda covered the toughest questions of conflict in the Middle East, trade, energy, security and the environment.
As expected, there was more talk than action. But there was a strikingly new ingredient: the extraordinary banality captured by an open microphone which eavesdropped a private conversation between George Bush and Tony Blair.
Dubya, the master-mangler of the English language, greeted our PM with 'Yo Blair!' - a salutation more common in the ghettos of Washington DC than in its diplomatic salons.
But it is not just the greeting which seems to so belittle Blair and by definition Britain as well. The truth is that this snatch of dining-room farce will dull the spirits of every patriotic Briton.
Mr Blair offers to go to the Middle East to pave the way for a peace mission by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's infinitely more able sidekick. Mr Blair says humbly: "If she goes out, she's got to succeed - whereas I can go and just talk."
What a damning indictment of Britain's weakness, of the contempt in which we hold ourselves, and of our readiness to prance to the tunes of others.
Does it not occur to Mr Blair that going to 'just talk' might confirm the sadly well-founded feeling in both Arab and Israeli camps that Britain's role in the region is that of a duplicitous phoney? It would be cruelly fitting if, when Mr Blair next visits a foreign potentate, they ask him whether he is there for a real discussion, or wishes 'just to talk'.
Having exhausted the diplomatic lexicon, the two leaders quickly retreat on to safer ground. Mr Blair, it seems, has bought Mr Bush some item of clothing, a sweater.
The American leader is touchingly grateful. Oddly, his conversational register switches from rap patois to the language of an Enid Blyton story, as he chirps 'it's awfully thoughtful of you'.
Then the conversation moves back to geopolitics and provides further reason for despair.
Mr Bush pronounces that "what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s*** and it's over".
And that's it. Does Mr Bush really believe that the longestrunning, costliest and most intractable international conflict in the world will somehow be 'over' if one bunch of terrorists can be strong-armed into stopping their cowardly rocket attacks on Israeli civilians?
What about the murderous rejectionists of Hamas, now the government of Palestine, and Iran's leaders who want to 'wipe the state of Israel from the map'? What about Al Qaeda? What about the mills of hatred financed by Saudi Arabia across half the world, which teach impressionable Muslim youth that the West and Israel are evil and deserve only destruction?
The depressing truth is that for all our previous disappointments, the shallow, callow nature of Mr Bush's world view is still capable of shocking us. He may have the right ideas - on bringing democracy to the Muslim world, for example. But his inattentive approach and botched planning are reflected all too savagely in these throwaway remarks.
In one sense it is perhaps comforting that the leaders of the two English-speaking nuclear powers are so comfortable in each other's company that they chat as easily as two teenagers.
But the familiarity and laziness of their discourse jars hideously when set in the context of the summit. For these are not two dullards with some piece of GCSE coursework to be plagiarised. These are our leaders, and on the table is the prosperity and safety of the world.
At one point, Mr Blair casually refers to the stalled world trade as the 'trade thingy'. Mr Bush replies rather plaintively: "I just want some movement." They are referring to nothing less than the future of the world's economic system which now hangs by a thread thanks to the timidity, greed and incompetence of the politicians visiting St Petersburg.
Without movement by the rich countries on farm subsidies, and by poor countries on opening their protected home markets, the world will spiral downwards into protectionism and poverty.
It is no exaggeration to say that the astonishing gains of globalisation, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past decade, are now at stake.
That is not a 'trade thingy' - and to call it that reflects a flippant approach that demeans both the speaker and the listener.
To see how far we have fallen, contrast the chit-chat of our prime minister with his American chum to the tone of correspondence between two friends nearly 70 years ago. When Roosevelt learned of Churchill's appointment to the War Cabinet in 1939, he wrote as follows:
MY DEAR CHURCHILL:
It is because you and I occupied similar positions in the World War that I want you to know how glad I am that you are back again in the Admiralty. Your problems are, I realise, complicated by new factors but the essential is not very different.
What I want you and the Prime Minister to know is that I shall at all times welcome it if you will keep me in touch personally with anything you want me to know about. You can always send sealed letters through your pouch or my pouch. I am glad you did the Marlboro volumes [historical works written by Churchill] before this thing started - and I much enjoyed reading them.
With my sincere regards,
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
In that letter, there is intimacy, respect and trust - everything that one would wish for in the relationship between the two great leaders of the free world.
They are literate, thoughtful men: one writes books. The other reads them.
Mr Roosevelt's casual use of 'thing' to describe the war is as unexceptional in the context of his lucid prose as Mr Blair's 'thingy' is jarring.
The two men's bond, which defeated Hitler and imperial Japan, was echoed in the equally dignified and affectionate relationship between Thatcher and Reagan: a friendship that conquered communism.
But what Mr Bush and Blair so dismally fail to realise is that a leader's symbolic role demands dignity and a sense of occasion.
Nobody is perfect (Mr Reagan, infamously, once tested a microphone by saying, jokingly: 'Let's bomb Russia'). But especially in a semi-public event, are we not entitled to hope that our leaders speak to each other with intelligence and dignity?
For the bedraggled lame ducks of London and Washington, that is evidently too much to ask.
Edward Lucas is East European correspondent for The Economist