• U.S.

The American Prime Minister

5 minute read
Andrew Sullivan

You can see the stress in his face. Over the past few months, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, has evolved from the buoyant, almost boyish persona of his recent past. The eyes have sunk into his forehead; the hair has receded; gray now frames his face, and that arched left eyebrow, once almost playful, has become etched in place. When he rose in the House of Commons last week to defend his precarious political position and urge the rambunctious deputies to go to war, he finally seemed old. A man once derided as slippery in his political pragmatism had become a weathered, unbudgeable rock.

All of which makes one realize how much the war now unfolding is in many respects Tony Blair’s war. No, he didn’t initiate it. His military forces are only a small part of the operation; Washington remains the unquestioned seat of the hyperpower. But, as his poll ratings revive, the British Prime Minister can reassure himself that he has had more input into the war’s evolution, rationale and timing than any other foreign leader and as much influence as many senior figures in Washington.

And this is quite popular among many Americans. In some ways, Blair has become, in a manner of speaking, the American Prime Minister, the foil and adjunct to a President with great strengths but some obvious limitations. Where Bush is formally eloquent but informally brusque, Blair speaks extemporaneously like a skilled prosecutor, nailing down debating points with parliamentary aplomb no former Governor of Texas has ever been required to master. Where Bush is instinctually a believer in American power, Blair understands the dynamics of a Europe bound together by a web of shared sovereignty and an acquired aversion to conflict and risk. While Bush is a conservative, Blair is an old-style liberal, in the mold of Britain’s great 19th century imperialist Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Bush is eager to engage the world in order to deter and defeat evil. Blair is a man who looks at the troubled globe and sees also an opportunity to do good.

What brings these two men together is a shared Christian faith. Blair is lampooned in London for having the self-righteous fastidiousness of an Anglican vicar. But his sincere faith forged a bond with a believing President and made Blair more receptive than most nonbelieving Europeans to the clear moral tone in the White House. What soldered the bond was the horror of Sept. 11. Blair’s supreme political gift is a swift, intuitive, unerring sense of the public mood. He cemented his hold on the British public by his poignant response to the death of Princess Diana. And he felt, in visiting America in the days after the massacre, that the country had changed deeply. He shared America’s grief and rage, recognized that there was no point in resisting its power and set about figuring out how to harness it for the world’s good.

The U.N.’s route to Iraq was therefore at least in part Blair’s policy. The final, desperate attempt to win unanimity on the Security Council–stymied in the end by France–was Blair’s project. The announcement before the initiation of the Iraq war that Washington would soon endorse the “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace had Blair’s fingerprints all over it. But in some ways, this understates Blair’s broader impact. For a whole section of centrist and liberal opinion in America, Blair’s endorsement of regime change in Baghdad helped solidify support for war, especially among influential elites, as well as making Blair a hero in the American heartland. And his almost masochistic willingness to expose himself to debate, animosity and relentless criticism at home made his pro-war stance seem, to skeptics, far less dubious in motive than, say, Dick Cheney’s. Blair not only helped prove that this war was necessary; he also helped show that it was moral. That is no small achievement.

And that dimension will only become more important in the months ahead. Winning the war in Iraq requires Bush’s tenacity and will. Winning the peace will demand Blair’s insistence on democratic governance, liberal order and further outreach to the Arab world. Blair’s motives are not entirely selfless, of course. His stance means that not only does his relatively small country carry disproportionate leverage in the war on terror, but also his influence in Washington translates into real clout in Europe. The European anti-Saddam coalition–Britain, Spain, Italy and the Eastern bloc–could emerge as the dominant force in the European Union in the next decade, edging out the Franco-German axis, with Blair at its head. Those are high stakes in geopolitics; and Blair, in that respect, is as ambitious as Bush. By being the indispensable nation’s indispensable ally, Blair is more powerful than any other British Prime Minister since Churchill. And many Americans, from nervous liberals to even hard-nosed neoconservatives, find that oddly reassuring.

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