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Tony Blair Finds His Spine

The prime minister sees the struggle with Saddam Hussein as a turning point.

March 02, 2003|William Shawcross | William Shawcross is the author of "Deliver Us From Evil: Warlords, Peacekeepers and a World of Endless Conflict."

LONDON — President Bush, in hailing Prime Minister Tony Blair for standing firmly with the United States on Iraq, said last month he was "proud to call him friend." Blair has indeed shown exemplary loyalty to Washington since Sept. 11, 2001, and that has taken extraordinary courage.

In the U.S., Blair is understandably popular, but his ratings in Britain have taken a dive. He is now in an extremely exposed position, having already sent tens of thousands of British troops to the Middle East for a possible Iraq war, despite mounting opposition in his own Cabinet, his party at large, the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and the British public. The left-wing tabloid the Mirror recently ran a photo of Blair that showed his hands tinted red. "Blood on His Hands," the indefensible headline screamed. He is frequently referred to in the press as Bush's "poodle."

Last week, 121 members of Blair's own Labor Party revolted and voted against the government's policy on Iraq. This was the largest rebellion by members of the governing party in recent political history and it meant that if Blair does take the nation to war, he will do so with a very divided Parliament and country behind him.

Blair's split with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder over Iraq has been wrenching. Blair has always wanted to be, as he has noted repeatedly, "at the heart of Europe," and has worked hard to forge a strong and cohesive Europe. Now, friction over Iraq has shifted European alliances, with France exploiting its anti-American posture to try to retain its traditional dominance over the continent. Blair meanwhile has received welcome support from the latest applicants to the European Union, former Soviet satellites such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, which see the United States as having been crucial to their liberation from communist tyranny.

Some world leaders would have crumpled in the face of such pressures. Blair has only grown stronger. In the past, he has said that "moral outrage" is what drew him to politics. But during his first years in office that righteous indignation was rarely on display. He was accused of wanting to be all things to all people, and was sometimes portrayed as the Bambi of British politics, gentle but ineffectual. No longer. Now he courts unpopularity and watches seemingly unfazed as his poll numbers slump. One political correspondent wrote last week that whereas some men, as they approach 50, go out and buy a red Ferrari to recapture their youth, Blair has rediscovered his sense of moral outrage.

That's not to say he hasn't made some missteps. Blair came into power nearly six years ago on clouds of adulation, promising to deliver far better public services -- schools, health and transportation in particular. In no case has he succeeded. People are irritated by what they see as an irrelevant moral crusade abroad, while the prime minister ignores growing problems at home.

But demonstrators denouncing Blair and Bush as war criminals and killers are showing total moral myopia: It is Saddam Hussein, not Blair or Bush, who is the killer and the war criminal, and the prime minister deserves support rather than derision.

Perhaps it was the clear moral perversity (however well intentioned in many cases) on display in the streets that has enabled Blair to remain calm and still convinced that his cause is just and above politics. Since the massive London antiwar march last month, he has taken to emphasizing how wrong it would be to leave a dictator as brutal to his own people as is Hussein in power.

Blair clearly sees the struggle with Hussein as a turning point. He and his closest aides have begun talking about the League of Nations failures in the 1930s, noting that if Mussolini had been punished by the league for invading Abyssinia, Hitler might have been deterred. Blair worries that continued appeasement of Hussein now would only encourage another Hitler -- in North Korea, perhaps.

Blair and Bush have been dubbed the odd couple, and it is certainly surprising that they have forged such a close working relationship. Blair is articulate, smooth, a collectivist both in domestic policy and (he dreams) in terms of European unity. Bush is none of those things.

But there is one important quality they share -- a deep Christian faith. Blair was understandably put out when a television interviewer asked him aggressively recently whether he and Bush prayed together. They do not, he said. But Europe is becoming more secular while the Bush administration is very Christian. Blair's singular religious commitment undoubtedly helps the relationship.

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