Bush Speech Receives Little Attention in Europe

European reaction to President Bush's speech on Iraq was muted as most nations focus on domestic concerns. In Britain, America's strongest ally in Iraq, a changing political landscape means that Tony Blair's government is also quiet on the U.S. plan to increase troop numbers in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush may be sending more troops to Iraq, but Britain is not. The British foreign secretary says today that her government has no plan to increase its forces. In fact, one British newspaper is describing a government timetable to withdraw nearly half Britain's troops from Iraq by the end of May.

NPR's Rob Gifford is covering the story from London. And, Rob, is the coalition getting a little less willing?

ROB GIFFORD: I think it probably is. As you say, Margaret Beckett came out in support of Mr. Bush' announcement, but the phrasing was rather interesting. She said, we welcome the announcement, and we hope that this effort will indeed succeed. And several newspapers have picked up on this. The Daily Telegraph this morning says this really marks the onset of a critical divergence, as it calls it, between the U.S. and the U.K. government.

And, in fact, it was the Daily Telegraph that this morning reported that the British troops would be reduced in the south of Iraq by May by some 3,000. So just as more U.S. troops are going in, the Telegraph, at least, reports that British troops are coming out.

INSKEEP: Or just to say we hope this effort will succeed almost sounds like they're saying good luck, America.

GIFFORD: That pretty much how a lot of people here are seeing it, and I think you see that in the press coverage as well. Of course, the speech was quite late in America, so it missed the early editions of the newspapers. But there's a sort of feeling, really, that this is now shifted to really being America's problem. It was never popular here in the first place.

And really now, we're seeing throughout Europe - I've been looking at the European press all over in Spain and France and Germany. You know, this is inside page news. People are focusing on their domestic issues at home.

INSKEEP: What about President Bush' biggest ally in Europe, Tony Blair, the prime minister of Britain?

GIFFORD: Well, Tony Blair, as you know, is going to step down. He said he'll step down by the fall, and he's being seen as many really by many as a lame duck, really, in what he's doing. Iraq has been the thing that's really down him in and destroyed him in many ways.

And what we've seen, actually, is Gordon Brown - his heir apparent - really trying to distance him in recent days - distance himself from Tony Blair in recent days - saying that he will do what is in the British interest in a speech a few days ago.

So we're really seeing the last months of Tony Blair's prime ministership, and everybody believes, really, it's this alliance with George Bush that has done for his time in office.

INSKEEP: Has Brown made it clear whether he would support a continuation of the war in any fashion?

GIFFORD: I think there's always an alliance that is going to be there between Britain and the United States. And Gordon Brown knows that that alliance is important. So he can't just bail out completely.

But the need to distance himself from even just - sort of, emotionally and mentally from the United States government is so great that I think we will see some very different noises coming out of 10 Downing Street if - as it's expected - Gordon Brown comes into power in the summer or early fall.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks very much. Good to talk with you.

GIFFORD: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Gifford in London, giving us European response to President Bush' speech last night.

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