"To act with doubleness towards a man whose own conduct was double, was so near an approach to virtue that it deserved to be called by no meaner name than diplomacy." George Elliot.
So, what to make of the new British prime minister's meeting with Dubya? It seems to be a tale of pundits seeing what they want to see. For instance, most non-UK writers are linking to a piece in the UK's Sun which says Brown intends sticking by Bush on Iraq.
But to really understand the what's going on here, you have to be aware that the Sun, Britain's most shallow and most influential tabloid, is a part of the Murdoch noise machine - and that the Sun has already written in an editorial that it will be hostile to Brown's every plan if he doesn't give the UK a referendum on European union (a union Murdoch and the Sun oppose). You have to know that the Sun, per Murdoch's wishes, supported Blair but wanted Brown to face a leadership challenge and then lose. You have to understand that the Sun's level of journalism makes even the Telegraph seem fair an balanced - not to mention accurate. And you have to understand that Murdoch is doing Dubya's work for him, spinning the story the way the Bush administration wants it.
The Guardian, an independently owned and non-conservative newspaper, puts a rather different spin on what exactly is going on:
Gordon Brown today used his first summit with the US president, George Bush, to hold out the prospect of withdrawing British troops from a combat role in the one remaining zone of Iraq they control.And does a good job of explaining the background to Brown's words, something the Sun conveniently misses.
The prime minister put no timescale on the move, which would see the UK troops pull back from combat to "overwatch" operations in Basra, the fourth and final Iraqi province in the hands of the British.
But, standing beside Mr Bush at Camp David, in Maryland, he said there was a "chance" that MPs could be informed of the step "when parliament returns". The House of Commons returns from recess on October 8.
While still international development secretary, Hilary Benn said in New York that the concept of a war on terror had given strength to terrorists. The phrase was studiously avoided by Mr Brown after the attempted bombings in London and Glasgow airport. Then Mark Malloch Brown declared that Britain and the US would no longer be joined at the hip. Another Foreign Office minister and Brown associate, Douglas Alexander, argued in Washington that multilateral action and soft power would be more important this century than unilateral military action. The latest emissary, the foreign policy adviser Simon McDonald, left the impression that he was tapping US reaction for a British pullout from Iraq. Nor did Washington like the fact that Mr Brown's first foreign trip was to France and Germany. The comparison between Mr Brown's Atlanticism and Nicolas Sarkozy's is instructive. The French president appointed an Atlanticist foreign minister in Bernard Kouchner, whereas Mr Brown's foreign policy team is full of European and development policy specialists.American conservative pundits in particular like to gloss over UK misgivings on Iraq, relegating them to purely the hated "left". However, the fact is that a wish to stop participating in Bush's Iraq misadventure is very much a bipartisan thing. Even the hardline Torygraph wants out.
The obvious interpretation put on each ministerial speech has been vigorously denied by Downing Street. The relationship with the United States is our single most important bilateral relationship, the prime minister intoned before leaving. But the cumulative effect of these signals cannot have been accidental, even if not all of the speeches were pre-approved. Mr Brown has had years to prepare for office. If the task of the first month was to establish that a new government was in power, this was most needed in Britain's relationship with America.
Ironically, Mr Brown is instinctively more pro-American than Mr Blair. He has a Washington contacts book that a British ambassador would envy. But Mr Brown can only be looking over Mr Bush's shoulder to the special relationship he will form with the next - and possibly Democrat - president.
And even the Torygraph can spot the rhetorical subtleties that the US right is deliberately blind to.
Mr Brown insisted that “our aim, like the United States is, step-by-step, to move control to the Iraqi authorities" and that this would be done “on the military advice of our commanders on the ground," echoing language often heard from Mr Bush.The words are careful, but they represent a world of difference between the two leaders.
He made clear, however, that Britain would follow its own timetable for withdrawal, based on the recommendation of British commanders and without being dictated to by Washington.
Much of their joint appearance was taken up with observations about what Mr Brown referred to as “the special relationship, call it, as Churchill did, the joint inheritance, call it, when we meet, as a form of homecoming, as President Reagan did.”
But while Mr Bush made frequent quips and lavished compliments on Mr Brown, the Prime Minister spoke of the transatlantic relationship in terms of history and values rather than the personality or policies of the current president.
...Mr Brown also said that “Afghanistan is the front line against terrorism”, whereas Mr Bush has often referred to Iraq as the front-line.
Update Brown's op-ed in the Washington Post is more of the same careful and diplomatic wording we saw in his presser with Bush. Any more nuanced reader than most rightwing pundits appear to be to would parse Brown's statement that:
All of us must be vigilant in our determination to prevent attacks and defeat the forces of terrorism. And it is the values we share that make us best placed to succeed. For to achieve this we must mobilize all methods of diplomacy, all means of intelligence, all tools of law and policing, and all the bravery of our security and military forces as we isolate terrorist extremists from the peaceful majority.As a slap in the face to the "bomb them all, let God sort them out" crusading zeal of the Cheneyites. Diplomacy, properly verified intelligence, the careful use of law and police methods - all these are "lefty" ideas for fighting terrorism, ideas that have been decried in the past by Republicans but have been watchwords for Democrats in the US as well as the British left.
The Brits understand what Gordon was doing, though - even the Murdoch-owned London Times - putting America on notice that while the US and UK are friends, that doesn't need to mean that the UK will jump when Bush says "jump".
Mr Brown chose to describe their talks as “full and frank”, a phrase which usually conceals disagreements.And the Guardian leader says Gordon succeeded in fine style:
He went on to suggest that Britain’s military was getting ready to hand control of Basra — the last province under its control in southern Iraq — to Iraqi authorities. “We intend to move to overwatch,” he said, describing how troops would withdraw to bases away from the immediate battlezones. He added that “whatever happens, we will make a full statement to Parliament when it returns”.
UK officials last night insisted that there was no change in policy but that Britain retained the right to withdraw its remaining 5,500 troops irrespective of any plea from Washington to continue operating alongside American troops.
As presidential compliments rained down on Mr Brown's head, it began to emerge that the prime minister had got what he wanted. His ministerial frontrunners had established a useful sense of ambiguity, the possibility that a relationship that had been joined at the hip might eventually be severed. Mr Brown then arrives and secures a working relationship, free of sycophancy. The White House characterised the hints of a tougher British partner as "white noise", saying it was not what British ministers said that mattered, but what they did. But the overall effect of this carefully calibrated operation has been to pull the clothes over to Britain's side of the bed.Brown gave Bush an object lesson in international diplomacy, that's all.