Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2003 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Blair's political paradox
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Tony Blair stands astride British politics like a colossus, with no credible challenger in sight. Yet this same Tony Blair has never been in so much trouble with his electorate. He is the most important leader in the supranational politics of Europe, which he must creep back into with caution and skill after a period of estrangement.
These are the paradoxes that swirl around Britain's singularly determined and moralistic prime minister.
They spring in large part from his odd political friendship with George W. Bush and from Blair's unhesitating decision to go to war in Iraq at America's side.
Many Britons believe that Bush would not have invaded Iraq without Blair's support, and they resent Blair for that. Others complain that Blair gets little from Washington in return for the enormous risks he has taken.
These are debatable notions. What is clear today is that U.S. influence in a changing, highly fluid Europe depends heavily on Blair's vision, energy and political viability. He is certainly the indispensable American ally in that sense.
At home, Blair's preeminence was confirmed last week when the Conservatives paid him the ultimate compliment: They tossed out their lackluster party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, in a desperate bid to find someone who can eventually stand up to Blair. This came after Blair convincingly faced down left-wing critics at his Labor Party's annual conference in September.
But such acts of real politics do not keep Blair from stumbling along at low levels of public approval, as the electorate blames its supersized leader for poor railroads or public health reforms that threaten jobs and tradition.
Such complaints are exacerbated by the feeling that Blair spends too much time on foreign affairs and especially on his connection to the deeply unpopular Bush.
"The polls show that the people want their prime minister back," one Blair adviser says. "He has to take note of that."
Blair will become more visibly involved in domestic affairs, three brief visits to England over the past two months suggest to me. But Americans and Europeans must hope that this will not lessen Blair's commitment to international and European affairs, which has been remarkably consistent and productive.
Blair did not join in invading Iraq to please Bush or for immediate gains for Britain. The two men have built a good personal relationship better in some ways than the one Blair enjoyed with Bill Clinton but they are still on uncertain ground when it comes to working together.
"At the end of their meetings, I think the prime minister comes away feeling that the deal has not really been closed, or that if there was a deal it could come undone the next day," one Blair confidant said. "I think that is not an untypical reaction by foreign leaders dealing with this White House, but it gets nerve-racking when you're about to go to war together."
Blair rejects accusations that he went into Iraq to curry favor with Washington. "It is worse than that," Blair told rebellious Laborites last spring in a line his aides love to quote. "The truth is I really believe in this."
There are in fact two strands behind Blair's politically costly commitment on Iraq.
One is the view captured in a private comment he made to a British cabinet member years ago: "In a crisis, Britain's default position is with America."
Another associate explains that Blair feels that "the biggest danger facing the world is an isolationist America, an America that will not be at Britain's side or Europe's side when we need it."
But that does not mean choosing America instead of Europe. In recent weeks Blair has resumed building bridges to France and Germany in what one aide says is an attempt "to construct a plausible alternative to this administration's unilateralist temptation," which will be given free rein if France and others make obstructing U.S. power a primary objective of the European Union.
Blair's diplomatic strategy is, for obvious reasons, best pursued in code or in silence. But Blair has been highly vocal on the second strand of his commitment his belief in humanitarian intervention. I first heard him touch on that theme in casual conversations a decade ago. He developed it fully in a brilliant speech delivered on April 22, 1999, to the Chicago Economic Club.
Blair's consistency both on the U.S. connection and interventionism has been obscured by his decision to build his prewar case on Iraq around the gathering danger of weapons of mass destruction. Neither that misstep nor his domestic woes negates the significant strategic contributions that Tony Blair has made and must continue to make to transatlantic security and international justice.
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10/30/03: Listen to the Iraqis
10/30/03: Listen to the Iraqis