Some will judge the success of the Republican convention this week by the president’s speech. Others will try to gauge whether Sen. John McCain won over any moderate voters. Still others like the pomp and circumstance, and will rate the choral salutes to the military — “Anchors Aweigh,” the halls of Montezuma and so on — as the highlight of the New York convention. But for a small group of observers, far and away the key event this week will be the grand entrance of Liam Fox.
And who is Liam Fox? I’d love to write that if you have to ask, you’ll never understand, but actually it isn’t that complicated. Fox is the co-chairman of the British Conservative Party. Along with other traditional Republican allies from around the world, Fox is in New York leading the traditional Tory delegation. British newspapers describe him as a close personal friend of Karl Rove, which probably means that they’ve spoken twice. But although senior Tories usually get invited to a party or two with senior Republicans, British newspapers also claim that Fox’s office is “unable to say” whether he will encounter Rove — or anybody from the White House — in New York.
Under normal circumstances, this non-evidence of a non-meeting would hardly be front-page news, but in Britain, unfortunately, it is. Last week, just as Fox and his chums were getting ready to go off to New York, a British tabloid printed an account of a recent telephone conversation between Michael Howard, the leader of the British Conservatives, and Rove. It seems that Howard was planning to visit Washington this spring but had in the meantime been critical of Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who is in turn President Bush’s close personal friend. As a result, Rove was less than encouraging about the prospects of a warm reception in Washington. “You can forget about meeting the president,” he said. “Don’t bother coming. You are not meeting him.”
Howard indirectly confirmed the truth of the report by issuing a statement on Saturday. “A Conservative government would work very closely with President Bush or President Kerry, but my job as leader of the Opposition is to say things as I see them in the interests of our country,” he said. “If some people in the White House, in their desire to protect Mr. Blair, think I am too tough on Mr. Blair or too critical of him, they are entitled to their opinion. But I shall continue to do my job as I see fit.”
Indeed: Being critical of one’s opponent is a major part of a political leader’s job description. But being friendly to one’s friends — and the Tories are historically the Republicans’ friends — ought also to be a major part of any senior White House adviser’s job description. Being friendly to people who might be leaders of an allied country is usually par for the course as well, and it costs surprisingly little.
I don’t want to make too much of this storm in a teacup, which is, after all, the stuff of playground battles: Michael said something mean about Tony, so Karl said something mean about Michael, so Liam might not get invited to Karl’s parties in New York. But in a week in which the Republican Party wants us all to talk about the national security credentials of the president, it’s not an uplifting story either.
More to the point, Rove’s conversation with Howard is more evidence of how few national security lessons the president’s team has learned in the past year. For all the talk of needing allies and of wanting more countries involved in Iraq, for all the blather about strong historical links to Britain, I don’t believe that the White House, deep down, wants anything out of foreigners except obedience.
Even Neil Kinnock, the unpleasant, egregious and seriously left-wing 1980s leader of the British Labor Party, got to meet Ronald Reagan. But Michael Howard, an (admittedly) equally unpleasant conservative who has continued to support the Iraq war, more or less, even though his party and his country are now increasingly opposed, has been cut off because the official White House line is all Tony Blair, all the time. In the past, Howard has been fervently pro-American. When in charge of the British judicial system, during the last Tory government, he paid frequent homage to Rudy Giuliani and the New York City police. What does he have to do to stay in the White House’s symbolic good graces — kowtow?
I realize, of course, that Michael Howard isn’t the British prime minister now, and that he hardly matters. Still, life is long and British conservatives have been known to win elections. In the meantime, Tories are closely following Liam Fox in New York this week, looking to see who snubs him, gossiping about who meets with him and who doesn’t. Is that really the story that the White House wants its staunch British friends to take away from the Republican convention?