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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE / WALKING PAPERS

The ditch Blair project

September 09, 2006

PREMATURE POLITICAL OBITUARIES are nothing new, but it isn't every day that a politician writes his own. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair did just that -- although he left out the precise time of "death," hinting that he would step down within one year in favor of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon

Brown. Now journalists are chiming in with their own advance eulogies, many of which identify Blair's fatal affliction as his support for President Bush's foreign policy.

It's not that simple. Yes, Blair has been savaged for supporting not only the war in Iraq but also a pro-Israel position in the recent war in Lebanon. Critics deride him as "Bush's poodle," but that's a doubly unfair epitaph for Blair's tenure at 10 Downing Street.

First, his hawkish position on Iraq involves more than parroting Bush. It reflects his own conviction that democracies like Britain and the United States should intervene abroad when necessary to plant democracy (one goal of the invasion of Iraq) or to rescue the victims of ethnic cleansing (as in the Balkans). Quite unlike Bush, Blair considers these missions to go hand in hand with leadership on global warming, debt reduction in the Third World and aggressively reducing poverty worldwide. Blair has been the most articulate spokesman for what appears to be a political breed in retreat -- the liberal internationalist.

A political obituary for Blair that fixates myopically on Iraq or on U.S.-British relations gives short shrift to Blair's accomplishments at home, notably his shepherding of the Labor Party back to power after 18 years in the wilderness. Blair led the party to victory three times -- the last time despite the baggage of the Iraq war -- because he recognized the need to liberate what he called New Labor from the ideological straitjacket of the "loony left." Blair became an evangelist for a Third Way between the doctrinaire socialism of "old Labor" and the too-rugged individualism championed by Margaret Thatcher. The Third Way preached that a party of the left could be pro-business and open to innovation without forsaking the poor and the marginalized.

A similar gospel was preached successfully by a U.S. president whose tenure overlapped with Blair's -- not Bush but the Great Triangulator, Bill Clinton. That so many in Britain and the United States have forgotten the Blair-Clinton partnership is a reminder that Blair has been prime minister for a long time and probably should move on. Just don't call him "poodle."

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