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Hoge: Bush’s Image and Message Likely Enhanced by Trip to Britain

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Warren M. Hoge
November 21, 2003

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Warren Hoge, the chief London correspondent for The New York Times, says that as a result of his trip to Britain, President Bush “has certainly improved his image” overseas. What remains to be tested, Hoge says, is whether the anti-terror message Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasized will sink in after the latest attacks on British targets in Istanbul.

“I think the initial impression is that the trip did not turn out nearly as bad as many people thought it might, and it might even have been positive, in terms of the image of George Bush,” he says. Hoge, who has been the Times’ London correspondent for more than seven years, is returning to New York on December 1 to become United Nations bureau chief and foreign affairs correspondent.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 21, 2003.

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How did President Bush’s trip to Britain turn out?

I think we will have to wait and see what the reaction is, because this trip did not result in any announcements or resolutions of outstanding issues between the two countries. It really became a public relations presentation, an effort by Bush and by Prime Minister Tony Blair to sell Europe on their vision of the world and the need to combat terror in the way Bush described in his [November 19] speech [in London]: that spreading democracy and freedom is the best way to roll back terror and chaos and guarantee the security of the Western world. In his speech, Bush directly challenged Europe to accept the notion that force was sometimes necessary and also to participate in a multilateralism that was effective and efficient. I think one of the measures of the success of this trip will be whether that message is accepted.

Has Bush’s image improved as a result of this trip?

An awfully important part of whether the message was received properly or not is the nature of the messenger. We will have to wait and see if his image has improved. But I will say that he was given high marks by newspapers in Britain— that are very critical of him normally— for the way he delivered the speech to an invited group of foreign policy experts in Whitehall Palace on Wednesday. There were a lot of comments along the lines of the “tongue-tied Texan speaking directly for a change.” There wasn’t, honestly, as much attention devoted as there should have been to the content of that speech.

Attention was focused on his style, which, frankly, has caused him problems in Europe, where the message and the immense military might of the United States and the belief that this president places too much trust in that military might are all things that cause him problems. I think, all said, he was accepted much more this time than he was in some past visits to Europe, and taken a bit more seriously.

An article in the British press quoted the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, saying he “was most certainly surprised at the extent to which the caricature of [Bush] was inaccurate.” It was a very positive evaluation, even though the Liberal Democrats are opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy.

That’s significant. I know Campbell well. I know his views. The party, as you say, has been anti-war, has been very critical of Bush’s policy. [Campbell] is a very upstanding guy. He is not a small bore politician. He is a big figure in British politics.

Bush certainly is caricatured in Europe. He suffers from that caricature. And as I was saying before, one of the measurements of the success of his trip is whether what he says is taken seriously. Now, that comment from Menzies Campbell sounds to me like he’s saying, “I still don’t buy it, I don’t believe it, but I do take it seriously.” The speech [Bush] gave here and the one he gave two weeks ago on a similar theme— the notion that thrusting liberty and democracy into failed states is the best way to advance progress— were well-worded and well-delivered. Yet [they weren’t] given too much attention by the [British] press, though the press [this week] was paying attention to the style and was finding some favorable things to say about [Bush] that they never had before.

What was the press expecting?

What the press was expecting in terms of Bush were verbal gaffes, having no manners at Buckingham Palace, looking kind of disrespectful and sneering. That’s what they were anticipating, and they did not get that. To that extent, Bush has certainly improved his image in Europe, even with people who very unfairly had caricatured him before as being a “hick from the sticks.”

How did the November 20 attacks on British targets in Istanbul factor into the Bush trip?

The attacks certainly appear linked to the presence of Bush in London. It is the first time that British interests have been targeted. The British have been extremely wary of this moment happening. Sir John Stevens, who is the commissioner of Scotland Yard, has said repeatedly that it is “inevitable”--that is the word he uses— that there will be a terrorist strike in Britain. He has suggested strongly that it would be something like a car bombing. And then, you have had these [so-called] risk control groups that look at the vulnerability of cities saying that London is the most vulnerable city in the world right now, and the reason is that this is a country, really, with only one city of consequence, and they fairly or unfairly say it has a very concentrated Muslim population, which they say gives terrorists a place to blend in and hide.

I mention this only because it has been very much on the minds of Britons that they are a likely target. So suddenly, [on November 20,] they become a target for the first time. Now it takes place in Istanbul, but both the consulate and the HSBC bank were British interests. And [the attacks] happened on the day Bush was here, and it happened literally an hour before a press conference, which then became devoted almost entirely to the events in Turkey. The reason I raise this is that there are two rival conclusions Britons are going to be asked to draw.

One is the conclusion that Bush and Blair stated most emphatically. It was somber, it was grim, and it was determined. I’ve listened to these two guys speak a lot and I’ve never heard them be quite so forceful as they were yesterday. That interpretation is that these attacks in Istanbul prove beyond doubt that the war on terror must be pursued as aggressively as possible. Curiously, both men said that it also proves that Iraq is now the field on which that war must be fought.

The other interpretation is the one that came from the marchers protesting Bush’s trip. That view holds that these things are happening because of the war in Iraq. Had Britain and the United States not gone to war against the Iraqis, it would not have triggered this global outbreak of terror acts, they argue. So another way the success of this trip will be measured is whether the British and the Europeans go for theory No. 1 or No. 2.

Americans, of course, remember the Britons of World War II, who, while London was being bombed by the Nazis, refused to give in. It is hard to believe that these same Britons could be intimidated by al Qaeda.

First of all, it is a very different Britain now. I don’t mean that the British might be intimidated. But I do mean that the bombings have happened now. They’ve been told it will have to happen one of these days. The fact that it has happened is a bit of a moment. And Britons now will be thinking: “Why is this happening to us and what should we do about it?” The Blair-Bush theory is that we should prosecute the war against terror as vigorously as possible since [the terrorists] are out to get us. The view of a lot of critics of the war is that “we are much more vulnerable to terror now than we were before because we went to war in Iraq.”

What would the critics do?

They don’t go the next step and say what should be done. The people who were marching yesterday were not seeking instant withdrawal from Iraq. They don’t really have any alternative plans, and they are also, frankly, not being asked for them. In a strange way, these protests are about something that has happened. A lot of protestors who were marching yesterday said, “We are marching to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again.” By “this kind of thing,” they mean what they see as a rush to war, with no international approval, disdain for allies and friends who are warning the thing might go wrong.

People have talked about the so-called special relationship between the United States and Britain. But since the Suez invasion in 1956 by Britain, France, and Israel— which the United States opposed and forced to end— the relationship has had ups and downs. Britain did not support the United States in the Vietnam War, did it?

Harold Wilson was prime minister then. Wilson just would not send troops. The British, along with the rest of Europe, were pretty critical of the war in Vietnam. But ironically, Suez is always cited here, particularly by conservatives, as an example of what is good about the special relationship. There are a lot of people here who look back at what Anthony Eden, the prime minister in 1956, did and say that it was awfully stupid and that we should have listened to our American friends. They say that proves that we must never do anything unless the Americans are with us. That is an argument for the special relationship. Blair and other prime ministers have carried the next step forward, which is to say, not only must we not do anything without the Americans, but we must not oppose what the Americans do. Blair believes, and most prime ministers have, that Britain is most powerful, most impactful in the world standing side by side with America.

How do you think Blair came out in public opinion from the Bush visit?

Obviously, this trip was potentially much more beneficial to Bush than to Blair. Blair has nothing to gain from being pictured side-by-side with George Bush. Bush presumably has a lot to gain from being pictured side-by-side with Blair, who may be the most popular foreign leader in America and, I believe, more popular with Americans than Bush. And also, Bush has a lot to gain by being pictured next to the Queen of England. There was nothing in this that was good for Blair. In Blair’s case, it was damage control. My first impression is that he controlled it pretty well.

There is an interesting phenomenon that we chanced upon in connection with his visit. Some of the polling organizations went out and once again tapped public feelings about the war. To their surprise, they found that opposition was waning. In other words, they found that views on the rightness of having gone to war in the first place were on the rise, and also that opposition was declining. There was also a poll in The Guardian, the day before Bush arrived, which came up with similar figures. That suggests that Blair might not be in as much trouble as he was before when the inquiry was going on all summer into the alleged tampering of intelligence information and that sort of thing.

At the same time, Blair has been having a terrible problem in Parliament and just managed [on November 20] to pass two absolutely basic pieces of legislation by the narrowest possible margins. One was on health policy and the other on allowing retrial of criminal cases if compelling DNA evidence is found. This is a man with a majority in Parliament of 164 [votes]. So that’s an indication that he has not regained the authority he once had. A lot of that has to do with the war. And a lot of that has to do with the British public’s impatience with the fact that he spends so much time on international affairs and, they think, so little time on the kind of domestic things like the state of the public services in this country, which are a bit of a scandal.

Is the steel tariff issue really important to Britain?

The special steel tariffs [imposed by the Bush administration in March 2002] are deeply resented here, even though the British have gotten a couple of breaks the other European countries haven’t. I have friends in the American Embassy in London who tell me they cannot remember a time when the people they deal with in the British government were angrier than they were about that. Not only did the tariffs hurt the steel industry here, which apparently is more reformed and advanced than the one in the United States. But also, it was so clearly done for domestic political purposes in America. That added by a factor of about 10 to the resentment here in Britain that they, principal allies in Iraq, should be punished solely so Bush can win some points in domestic politics at home. So steel tariffs are really, really irritating.

You may have seen at the Bush-Blair press conference [on November 20], Bush was asked about it. Bush replied that I can promise you that the prime minister mentioned it to me, not one time, not two times, but three times. In other words, Bush was aware of how objectionable those tariffs are. And of course, they were declared illegal by the World Trade Organization, and we have to see if they are cut back or rescinded.

The other issue that is really difficult for the British is that there are nine Britons detained at [the U.S. Naval base at] Guantanamo Bay [where the U.S. government is holding suspected terrorists]. Two of them are destined to go to military tribunals where there are no appeal rights and no civilian lawyers. That’s something that everyone in the street here knows about and complains about. Curiously, the British are in a bit of a quandary because, on the one hand, they are arguing for the repatriation of those guys. On the other hand, the attorney general of Britain has said that it would be very difficult to try them here because of the kind of evidence that would be introduced. So there’s a feeling within the government that they are not eager to bring them back here, because in the end [the government] would have to let them go, and that would cause [the government] more problems.

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