Julian Glover and Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian – 2006-07-25 00:05:21
(July 25, 2006) — Britain should take a much more robust and independent approach to the United States, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today, which finds strong public opposition to Tony Blair’s close working relationship with President Bush.
The wide-ranging survey of British attitudes to international affairs — the first since the conflict between Lebanon and Israel started — shows that a large majority of voters think Mr Blair has made the special relationship too special.
Just 30% think the prime minister has got the relationship about right, against 63% saying he has tied Britain too closely to the US.
Carried in the wake of the accidental broadcast of the prime minister’s conversation with President Bush at the G8 summit, the poll finds opposition to this central element of the prime minister’s foreign policy among supporters of all the main parties.
Even a majority of Labour supporters — traditionally more supportive of Mr Blair’s foreign policy position — think he has misjudged the relationship, with 54% saying Britain is too close to the US. Conservatives — 68% — and Liberal Democrats — 83% — are even more critical.
And voters are strongly critical of the scale of Israel’s military operations in Lebanon, with 61% believing the country has overreacted to the threats it faces.
As pressure grows for a change of strategy, the poll finds that only 22% of voters believe Israel has reacted proportionately to the kidnapping of soldiers and other attacks from militant groups in southern Lebanon. Israel has repeatedly sought to assure the world that its actions are a legitimate response to threats to its own territory, including missile attacks on the north of the country.
The finding follows more than a week in which Mr Blair has come under fire for echoing US caution about the practicality of an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East and for allying himself too closely to Israel.
At a press conference in London yesterday Mr Blair defended his position and expressed sympathy for the plight of the Lebanese. “What is occurring in Lebanon at the present time is a catastrophe. Anybody with any sense of humanity wants what is happening to stop and stop now,” Mr Blair said. He added: “But if it is to stop, it must stop on both sides.”
This did not amount to switch in policy but a change in emphasis, in part to answer critics who accuse him of being indifferent to the plight of the Lebanese. A British official said: “He wants to make it clear he has the same feelings as everyone else but the job of government is to find an answer. The proof of the pudding is if we are able to find a way through.”
Unlike other international leaders, Mr has refused to describe the Israeli attacks on Lebanon as disproportionate. But the official said there was a difference between what Mr Blair said in public and what Mr Blair and other members of the government said to the Israelis in private.
Public unease about Israel’s approach is reflected in public attitudes to the Iraq war, with support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein falling to a record low since military action began in March 2003.?
Although a solid core of Labour supporters — 48% — still think the war was justified, overall only 36% of voters agree — a seven-point drop since the Guardian last asked the question in October 2004.
Older voters, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and people living in the south are particularly critical, suggesting the anti-war movement has a base of support well beyond student groups and the left.
Support for the war reached 63% in April 2003, in the wake of early military success. Now a narrow majority of voters — 51% — believe it was unjustified, the highest proportion for more than two years.
Amid fears that the armed forces are operating at the limit of their resources, voters also believe that British troops are doing more harm than good in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are more concerned by the role of British forces in Iraq than Afghanistan, with 36% saying their presence is making the situation worse in Iraq against 29% who think this is true of Britain’s more recent deployment in southern Afghanistan.
But both findings outweigh the proportion of voters who think British troops are improving the situation on the ground: just 19% of all those questioned think they are making progress in Iraq and 23% think this is the case in Afghanistan. Around a third of voters think that at best British forces are making no difference one way or the other in the two countries.
There is also minimal public appetite for fresh foreign policy commitments, such as a multinational force in Lebanon. An overwhelming proportion of voters think current deployments are already overstretching Britain’s military resources: 69% agree; 19% do not.
Conservatives — 78% of whom believe the armed forces are overstretched — are especially concerned, despite David Cameron’s support for an interventionist policy, symbolised by his visit to troops in Kandahar yesterday.
• ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,001 adults over 18 by telephone on July 21-23. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules