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Saturday, April 05, 2003

Emissaries and Dignitaries

On September 13, 2001, two days after the World Trade Center attacks, the BBC staged a special edition of its program "Question Time":

In the highly-charged atmosphere of the BBC studio, Phil Lader, the former US ambassador to Britain who was on the panel, appeared to fight back tears as he was shouted down while trying to tell the audience of his sadness.

Presenter David Dimbleby struggled to control the shouting as some members of the audience claimed the US was ultimately responsible for the deaths of its own nationals as well as of Britons.

The director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, later apologised for the incident, over the objections of some of his staff.

This week the Guardian has been making much of the invisibility of the current US ambassador to the UK, William Farish III:

With Anglo-American relations suffering their gravest crisis in years, academics and diplomats are wondering whether George Bush made a grave error in appointing his family banker to be his representative in London. At a time when the US needs an articulate voice answering fears about the US, questions are being raised about the man dubbed the "invisible ambassador".

Lord Wallace of Saltaire, one of Britain's leading experts on Anglo-American relations, said that Mr Farish was doing little to help Washington sell its case. "You do need people who not only have access to the Bush administration but who can also handle a complex political relationship," he said.

His remarks are mild compared with those of senior diplomatic figures, who were scathing about the Kentucky horse breeder. One former ambassador could barely control his laughter when asked about Mr Farish.

"You mean the invisible ambassador," the retired diplomat said. "William Farish is not competent to deal with this kind of problem. Quite what he is up to, nobody has been able to find out."

Now this is a problem. To some extent I think the Bush Administration has written off the idea of trying to win over the British public, knowing that it will be met with protests no matter what is says. The BBC program, before the Afghan war was on the horizon, gives a further impression of this, and Farish probably recognises his limitations in the area of "public diplomacy". For all of the "Freedom Fries" rhetoric, though, Bush has been to both France and Germany. He has yet to visit the UK, and Tony Blair's flying off to Camp David and the Azores with no "reciprocity" from Bush reinforces an impression that Blair is Bush's "poodle".

On Saturday the White House announced that Bush will have a summit with Blair next week in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland? Reagan, knowing what people in the CND (to name but one) thought about him, still went to Downing Street. I would like to know what makes Bush and his advisers (or the Secret Service) fear the mainland British public.