To set the stage for his visit to britain this week, George W. Bush wanted to project an air of relaxed, confident leadership. So on Thursday he invited a gaggle of star U.K. journalists to the Oval Office, showed off the bust of Churchill near his easy chair and praised the Briton ("He was the kind of guy that stood tough when you needed to stand tough"). But the bad news that kept landing on Bush's desk challenged that self-assured image. After a truck bomb in Nasiriyah on Wednesday killed 19 Italians, mostly peacekeeping troops, and 13 Iraqis, South Korea cut its projected troop deployment from 5,000 to 3,000; Japan put its deployment on hold. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin called for the U.S. to relinquish sovereignty to Iraqis right away. "We have to move fast, we can't wait any longer," he said. In Baghdad, the CIA prepared a report concluding that the insurgency was growing along with American unpopularity. On Saturday, two U.S. helicopters crashed in Mosul, killing at least 17, and the U.S. unveiled a new plan to more quickly cede authority to an interim Iraqi government (see following story).
And in London, thousands of citizens of America's closest ally were busy preparing a distinctly frosty welcome including plans to pull down a papier-mâché statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square, just as U.S. soldiers pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. French foreign-policy analyst François Heisbourg, who four months ago wanted Europe to send 60,000 troops to Iraq, captured the new, grim mood: "Iraq has gone to hell in a handbasket. Digging a deep hole doesn't put you in a position to ask others to jump into it."
Welcome to Europe, Mr. President. Bush won't be venturing onto the Continent, but the Continent's eyes are trained on him. When Woodrow Wilson, the last President to stay in Buckingham Palace, arrived in 1918, just after World War I, he was greeted in Dover by girls in Stars and Stripes dresses strewing roses at his feet, and in London by ecstatic crowds eager to greet the man trying to make the world safe for democracy. Bush will get a different reception: a projected 60,000 peaceful protesters and 5,000 police officers mobilized to protect him from rioters and terrorists.
Rowland Byass, a 27-year-old garden designer from London, says he'll be there. "I would love to throw an egg at George Bush," he says. "My opposition to him is based on just about everything: the war on terror, the environment, human rights, conservative values I don't subscribe to. But I don't want to get shot by his security guards." Many activists are suspicious that police will use heavy-handed tactics to preserve antiseptic vistas for "Bliar's" best friend, but police officials have emphasized they have no intention of saving Bush the embarrassment of seeing peaceful protest. Security forces may have more trouble with small groups of activists, including some who have been arriving from Europe, using "spontaneous" tactics like lying down in the middle of busy streets to snarl traffic. But whether the TV pictures out of London this week focus on street protest or pomp and circumstance, the crucial business between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair will be Iraq: somehow getting a grip on the mess into which not long ago they eagerly waded. Only the future of the Middle East, the Atlantic alliance and their own reputations are at stake.
Speaking in his office last week with American reporters, Blair betrayed no anxiety about disorder in his capital, or polls showing that two-thirds of the British disapprove of Bush's foreign policy and 50% think his tight bond with Bush is bad for Britain. Instead, he stuck resolutely to the steely, almost masochistic discipline he has shown since Sept. 11, avoiding all public criticism of Bush except on relatively minor issues like steel tariffs and global warming. That has bought him a loyalty and warmth Bush shows no other foreign leader and secured Britain unmatched influence in Washington.