LONDON -- To his toughest critics at home, Tony Blair's visit to Camp David today looks like the British "poodle" answering his American master's whistle, a meeting to simply sign off on Washington's game plan to invade Iraq.
For peaceniks, the talks between President Bush and the British prime minister offer the last, best hope to avert war, with Blair wishfully cast as the only ally with the clout to somehow "talk Bush out of it."
Both views are misguided, say Blair associates and diplomatic sources.
Far from being Washington's lap dog, Blair has exerted crucial influence on the Bush administration, they say, most notably in convincing the president to seek U.N. sanction for action against Iraq.
And they say that Blair has already achieved his main goal for Camp David: persuading Bush to return to the United Nations for additional approval for military action, perhaps even a second Security Council resolution.
Neither U.S. nor British officials will discuss the Camp David agenda on the record. But privately, they say the two sides already see eye to eye on the central question of war and peace. What the allies will focus on instead is developing a diplomatic plan to get additional U.N. approval in the next four to eight weeks.
Blair will at least be among friends when he settles in for an afternoon and evening of informal talks with the president and a small group of senior advisors. The mood is much uglier back home, where an antsy public and Parliament are skeptical about the prime minister's insistence that Britain must be on the front lines of any war.
Heckled by Own Party
The British tend to see this as a fight George Bush picked. Polls say the public is 4 to 1 against striking Iraq without a U.N. imprimatur and citizens chafe at the idea that Blair is dragging them toward military action, with all its unpredictable dangers.
Blair has been heckled in Parliament this month -- from his own Labor Party benches. His Cabinet is at best unenthusiastic about joining a U.S.-led invasion. Members of the clergy are calling it immoral, pop stars are protesting, and the Foreign Office is filled with doubters. On the eve of his departure for Washington, one mass-circulation tabloid depicted Blair as a war criminal-in-the-making, complete with a doctored photo showing blood dripping from his hands.
"He feels alone, and I think he feels the pressure," said Clive Soley, a senior Labor member of Parliament and longtime friend of the prime minister. "Tony knows he's put himself 'out there.' And he knows if it doesn't pay off, if things go badly wrong, it'll be goodbye time."
Yet those closest to him say he has expressed no reservations about his position, even in private. Few doubt he will commit Britain to fight at Washington's side should the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein come to blows -- with or without another U.N. resolution.
For one thing, there will soon be 30,000 British troops ringing Iraq, more than a quarter of Britain's armed forces. "I don't see how, once the Americans start shooting, that Blair could turn to Washington and say: 'Sorry, our boys will stay sitting pretty," says Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
For another, observers argue that the prime minister is determined to confront Iraq because it's just the sort of moral crusade he finds appropriate for Britain.
That sense of conviction -- one Cabinet minister once anonymously described Blair as being "in his Jesus mode again" -- has become a cornerstone of Blair's reputation. "The other day he said to me: 'I just do what I believe is right,' " recalled Donald Anderson, who chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and is lukewarm himself on the need for war.
"There's this messianic quality to him. He's not always putting his finger to the wind to decide what to do."
Those close to the prime minister say he has no time for ideology, especially what he sees as the intellectually calcified left-wing, anti-American instincts that still course through part of the Labor Party. (In a speech to diplomats Jan. 7, he dismissed anti-Americanism as "a foolish indulgence.") He makes decisions on gut instinct, say those who know him. And then he's hard to move.
Blair is expected to use his leverage to urge Washington to stay patient and try to get at least some kind of consensus out of the Security Council.
Blair, Powell in Sync
The Bush administration remains divided over just how much to work with the United Nations. Blair's views have coincided nearly perfectly with those of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who believes it would be better for all concerned to get U.N. backing for attacking Iraq. Last summer, at a time when Powell was in the minority inside the administration, Blair's support helped Powell's views hold sway.
Blair's enthusiasm for U.N. participation is more than poll-driven. He believes that the United Nations and other multilateral organizations play a critical role in curbing violence and promoting democracy around the world. And U.S. unilateralism could dangerously erode that system.
"He's not just trying to do favors for George Bush," said Will Marshall, an expert on U.S.-British relations at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington. "Blair is acting in what I think he feels is the interest of the global system."
As a result, Blair believes Britain's interests are damaged by the United States acting on the global stage without taking into account views from outside Washington.
"Broadly speaking, he has a deep faith that America is a force for good," says one former Blair advisor who has an inside knowledge of British foreign policymaking. "But most of all, he regards America as a force. It's something you feel when you get close to the center of the U.S. government, and Blair has felt it more than most.
"So it's not a question of him seeing America as a powerful elephant that needs guidance into which tree it charges into," the former aide says. "He just believes it is a bad and dangerous thing for everyone if Washington operates entirely on its own."
That was the message Blair delivered to British diplomats in the January speech, warning of "chaos" should the world split "into rival poles of power: the U.S. in one corner; anti-U.S. forces in another." And it leaves Blair with, as he has put it privately to American officials, "no choice" but to get inside Washington's tent.
Mideast Talks Sought
Not that Blair doesn't have points of disagreement with Washington. Most significantly, he has pushed for Bush to restart an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. It is an appeal that stems from a belief in the need to end the violence, advisors say, as well as from the fact that most arguments in Britain over what to do about Iraq inevitably turn to the question: "Well, what about the Palestinians?"
But so far Blair has been rebuffed by Bush on the subject. "I'm sure Blair will raise Israel at Camp David, but I don't think we're going to go down that road until conditions are right," one U.S. official said.
Still, both leaders need today's meeting for political reasons: Blair to prove he still has influence, and Washington to show the world it is not alone.
Oddly, that means that British public opinion and the problems it causes for Blair may be more important to the Bush administration's upcoming decisions than American public opinion.
Both sides have already been helped by Blair's diplomatic groundwork over the last week. Thursday's release of a letter signed by Blair and seven other European leaders urging solidarity with the U.S. lanced some of the pressure on Bush. But it also gave Blair ammunition against those in Britain who accused him of taking his country out of sync with wider European opinion.
Blair has so far helped to keep the United States on a diplomatic course. The trick for the Camp David participants will be to find a way to successfully chart that course through the United Nations and bring recalcitrant allies in the Security Council on board.
"Blair thinks Saddam Hussein has thrown down the gauntlet and that the U.N. system is on trial," said Marshall, the Progressive Policy Institute expert. "What he is trying to do is prevent an irrevocable break opening up between the U.S. and Europe."
Special correspondent Wallace reported from London and Times staff writer Reynolds from Washington.