Condi Keeps a Stiff Upper Lip

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw may still exemplify the special relationship that has traditionally existed between the U.S. and Great Britain, practically finishing each other's sentences as they trouble-shoot their way through Iran’s nuclear brinksmanship, Israeli-Palestinian hostilities or sectarian tensions in Iraq. But as the two learned on Friday, a vocal part of the British people don't necessarily share a sense of kinship with their brethren — or at least their brethrens' elected government — across the Atlantic.

While they made their way around Blackburn, the heavily Muslim and blue collar town Straw represents in Parliament, the diplomatic duo were often met by anti-Iraq-war demonstrators, shouting and brandishing signs with slogans like "Stop torturing people" and "How Many Lives Per Gallon?" Straw is proudly showing off Blackburn, as well as nearby Liverpool, to return Rice's hospitality last fall, when she treated Straw and his wife Alice on a tour of her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

Friday morning Rice and Straw arrived at a South Asian-émigré dominated math-tech magnet school, only to be greeted by about 200 anti-war demonstrators, including some 50 students who “skived” — played hookey — to join the protest. Later in the day, students at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, established by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney in a rambling building where he and George Harrison had attended high school, booed and donned T-shirts that said, "No torture, No compromise." Saturday's planned visit to the Masjide Al-Hidayah mosque in Blackburn was scrubbed, according to the BBC, because some members feared the event would draw an unruly crowd.

Rice did her best to shrug off the catcalls, stressing her belief in the necessity of the Iraq war and even trying to spin the demonstrations as support for the Bush Administration's "freedom agenda." “People have the right to protest,” she said at one point. "That's what democracy is all about. And I'm just delighted that in more and more of the world, those rights to speak your mind are being extended to other people for whom that right has not been there.”

But Rice also used the open dissent as an occasion to admit fault. Speaking to an audience of intellectuals and foreign policy specialists today, she made the unusual admission that "I know we've made tactical errors — thousands of them, I'm sure. This could have gone that way or that could have gone that way," she remarked in an unusually candid aside. "I've said many, many times I am quite certain that there are going to be dissertations written about the mistakes of the Bush Administration and I will probably even oversee some of them when I go back to Stanford."

But on Saturday, Rice clarified her remarks. "First of all, I meant it figuratively, not literally. Let me let me be very clear about that. I wasn't sitting around counting," she said. ""The important thing is to get the big strategic decisions right, and that I am confident that the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqi people an opportunity for peace and for democracy is the right decision."

Facing his constituents, Straw said defiantly, "Now some here may accuse me of being immune to the heard realities on the ground in Iraq. I am not. What I am, and I make no apology for it, is firm in my view that democracy will ultimately triumph."

Rising disenchantment with the Iraq war, especially in Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling Labour Party, is only one cause of recent strains in the U.S. British relations. The political firestorm in Congress over the Dubai ports deal, and the protectionist sentiment that seemed to drive it, has alienated otherwise friendly conservative members of Britain's business class. Congress's continuing refusal to pass a bilateral extradition treaty that the British approved three years ago hasn't helped matters, since it makes it easier for the U.S. to extradite white collar criminals from the U.K. than vice versa. Adding insult to injury, last month the Pentagon decided to stop using British jet engine technology made by Rolls Royce for the Joint Strike Fighter planes that are still in development — a decision that the British are still heavily lobbying to reverse. With all those tensions brewing, Rice and Straw's personal rapport may be more important than ever before.