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Brits focus their fury on Blair

After the latest terror threat, many blame a U.S.-friendly foreign policy for London's risk.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published August 13, 2006


LONDON - Rona and Alan Payne were glad to be driving, not flying, as they headed out of London for a weekend break. Air travel remained a mess Saturday in the wake of what authorities call a foiled plot to blow up passenger jets.

The Paynes say they constantly worry about terrorism. But they put part of the blame on their own government.

"Our foreign policy is creating this," grumbled Alan Payne, who works in a funeral home. "It gives the other side the opportunity to gain strength. They're crazy fanatics. They don't care who they hurt or kill."

President Bush has no closer friend in the war on terror than British Prime Minister Tony Blair. At home, though, Blair is increasingly unpopular with voters like the Paynes who think his unwavering support of U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East is fueling Islamic extremism and endangering his own citizens.

In July 2005, four suicide bombers killed 52 people in bus and underground train attacks in London. British authorities say they have broken up several other terror plots, including the one last week that could have destroyed several jumbo jets bound from Britain to the United States.

Authorities say a tip shortly after the London bombings helped unravel the most recent plot. But many, including prominent Muslims in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, question whether Britain's fealty to U.S. foreign policy placed London at risk to begin with.

"It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the U.K. and abroad," read a letter published Saturday that was signed by 38 Islamic organizations, three of the four Muslim legislators from the House of Commons and three of the four Muslim members of the House of Lords.

It continued, "The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all."

Columnist Chris Blackhurst, writing in the Evening Standard, sharpened that view.

"Make no mistake, there were two targets in this latest, foiled outrage - ourselves and the U.S. Nobody else," he wrote.

"They may be our friends, but the Americans have a funny way of showing it. What the alliance is giving us - in abundance - is hatred, death and destruction."

Once admired as an eloquent advocate of the war on terror, Blair is now often accused of being Bush's "puppet" or "lap dog." An especially withering criticism came from Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite, who said Blair's "total identification" with the White House has destroyed his influence in Europe and the Middle East.

"Why bother with the monkey if you can go straight to the organ grinder?" Braithwaite recently asked in the Financial Times.

Like Bush, the prime minister defends the Iraq war and Israel's fight against the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah as part of the "battle against global extremism" that threatens Western civilization. In recent weeks, Blair has moved a bit away from the Bush administration by privately urging Israel to show more restraint in Lebanon and by publicly calling for a "complete rethink of our policy toward the Middle East."

But as Blair completes his third and final term as prime minister, polls show that 67 percent of Britons are unhappy with him - the highest disapproval rating of any Labor prime minister in history. More than half of the respondents said their opinion of him has dropped because of the Iraq war, in which 115 British soldiers have died.

"I used to think he was the cleverest man on earth, the way he approached and analyzed things was so right on," said Dominique Fortin, whose husband is a financial specialist for the British government. "But in the past years he's been following the Americans much too much. There's a conspiracy against the Arab world and it has to stop."

Irene Williamson, a secretary from Scotland who was visiting her daughter in London on Saturday, voted for the Labor Party last year even though she has long considered Blair's foreign policies "an embarrassment."

"I thought he has to be the one to get us out of this stuff he got us into," Williamson said. "It's not fair to push it onto someone else."

The fact that Blair has continued his Caribbean vacation as thousands of Britons remain stranded at airports during the latest terrorism scare has done little to boost his popularity.

"Crisis? Yacht crisis?" read a front-page Daily Mail headline Saturday over a photo of a beaming Blair aboard the $3,000-a-day yacht Good Vibrations.

Wasby Khan, an electronics technician, is among the many Muslims who helped propel Labor to victory in 1997 after nearly two decades of Conservative leadership. He wanted a change from the party of the "toffs," as Britain's upper crust the only ones who once could afford toffee is often called.

But Khan said he's seen little improvement in the lives of the working class. It still takes his wife two hours a day to get to her bank job in central London because public transportation is so poor. He fears his children will never be able to afford houses of their own because of soaring taxes and real estate prices.

Blair became so absorbed in foreign affairs that "he started not looking out for his home front," Khan said. "No disrespect to the general public of the U.S., but I think he's too close to Bush. His foreign policies are terrible. We never had the racial and religious problems we're having now."

Not everyone agrees that Anglo-American policies are the main cause of Islamic terrorism.

Responding to the letter from the Muslim groups, Douglas Alexander, the transport secretary, told BBC radio that "no government worth its salt should allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under the threat of terrorism." To do so, he said, would be "dangerous and foolish."

The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said it would be the "gravest possible error" to blame foreign policy for the threat of terrorism. "This is part of a distorted view of the world, a distorted view of life," she said. "Let's put the blame where it belongs: with people who wantonly want to take innocent lives."

That sentiment was echoed in a Times of London editorial Friday.

"Jihadis see Western society as innately evil," the editorial said. "They cannot come to terms with sexual equality, Western values, tolerance or democracy. If policy changed, they would look for other justifications for their fanaticism."

George Spark, a retired corporate lawyer, still supports Blair. And he respects him for standing his ground against critics, including those in his own party.

"I don't think we have a system where we change the policy because people become violent," Spark said. "If you don't like the policies, you should vote for another government."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com