British prime minister Tony Blair has been the dominant foreign leader at President Bush's side throughout the present crisis. He has been a constant presence: at the president's congressional address, taking the lead in laying out the evidence against Osama bin Laden, pressing other foreign leaders on behalf of coalition building, making key policy pronouncements, and contributing British forces to the war effort. In sum, Blair on behalf of Britain has been vigorously carrying on the long tradition of an Anglo-American special relationship.
Why is Britain so important to the United States? To begin with, Britain is an exceptional friend. The United States and Britain have collaborated in every major military and diplomatic action of the twentieth century, suffering only the briefest disagreements. Even when the United States has faced significant opposition to its policies from its traditional allies, as in the bombing of Libya, the British have stood with us, offering their bases, their intelligence, and most important their prestigious support.
Even though militarily less powerful, Britain still boasts invaluable strength in strategic situations. For example, 20,000 British forces and two dozen British warships were available in the gulf region immediately after September 11. Indeed, Britain continues to be an important force in both the gulf and South Asian areas and is still collaborating with the United States in the bombing missions over Iraq. Britain also makes a base on the strategically important island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean available to the United States.
On the diplomatic side Blair has demonstrated again how valuable Britain can be in reaching out both to allies and to uncertain or wavering states. Britain often has access to and influence in places where the United States does not or is unwelcome. Britain, for example, retains important contacts in the Middle East, such as in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which exceed U.S. influence. And British contacts in Africa are much more influential than American contacts. There are often situations where the British can approach an estranged power where we cannot, such as British foreign secretary Jack Straw's recent trip to Iran to enlist its support. London also continues as the economic and financial capital for a great number of developing nations, giving Britain complex economic and financial relationships with a wide variety of countries. This is why the British were able to immediately freeze much more of Osama bin Laden's financial resources than did a similar presidential action in the United States. Finally, British leaders are often valuable in putting out policy "trial balloons" to test reactions that could engender considerable political damage if they had come directly from the United States. Blair's predecessor John Major provided this valuable help during the gulf war, and Blair is again helping out in this direction.
Looking at the sum of the Anglo-American relationship during this crisis tells us that President Bush was indeed sincere when he told Congress that we have "no truer friend" than Britain.