The [Self-]Righteous Error of Tony Blair

It is easy to dismiss British Prime Minister Tony Blair as Washington's favorite poodle. But it is also quite simply wrong. Blair's motivation and methods are entirely different from those of George W Bush. His position is based not on political expediency, but on moral conviction and the complex dynamics of the longstanding relationship between Britain and the United States.

People who have met the British leader recently say that he thinks that he is using George W Bush rather than the other way around. But before anyone giggles uncharitably at such delusions of grandeur, let's remember that Blair had publicly paired Saddam Hussein with Slobodan Milosevic long before Bush Junior took office. It was Blair, leading a left-of-center Europe, who dragged an unwilling President Clinton into military action over Kosovo. And his desire to oust Milosevic was motivated by the moral, not the monetary -- the mythical oil pipelines touted by critics never materialized and even the lead smelter at Mitrovica was shut down because of its toxic effects.

Most of the world will agree that Blair's position, which introduced democracy (albeit tempered with assassination) in Belgrade and dispatched Milosevic to The Hague had a few good consequences.

Kosovo, however, also foreshadowed the prime minister's present dilemma. Against Blair's own good judgment, and the advice of his own foreign office, he went along with Clinton to create a dangerous precedent of not consulting the United Nations (though unlike Iraq, the two allies had the support of both NATO and much of the rest of the world). Nor was Blair effective in controlling the actual execution of the attack. While he wanted to commit ground troops, Clinton preferred to rely mostly on high-level, and hence less accurate, aerial bombing to save the political embarrassment of body bags back home. The military strategy prolonged the war and killed many civilians on the ground.

In Clinton, Blair seemed to have found a soul-mate. Both were in some senses non-ideological, with political positions that were based upon a sense of self-importance and infused with a passion for "modernization" -- which usually seemed to mean adopting your opponent's policies and calling them your own. But while Clinton could claim that this shift to the right was "necessary" to be elected, in Blair's push for the "New Labor" often required adopting unpopular stands and sticking with them in the face of public disapproval. Blair has genuine moral convictions, (not necessarily shared by those around him) and is prepared to fight for them, and has never adopted Bill Clinton's chameleon-like approach to politics. However Blair did like the limelight that came with hobnobbing with the President, and he soon developed a rose-colored enthusiasm for all things American, which came to represent all things new and forward-looking.

While Blair played an active role in his alliance with Clinton, his partnership with Bush has been far more asymmetrical. As with his predecessor, Blair's relationship with Bush is partly rooted in certain personal traits. He shares with the current president an egotistical moral certainty that is not shaken by public derision or other people's arguments. So when Bush took office, the instant rapport was less counterintuitive than it may have appeared. Their relationship has required each to ignore certain not-so-palatable aspects of the other. Blair overlooks the parade of death penalty executions, and Bush's pro-Sharon Middle East policy, while Bush, in turn, turns a blind eye to Blair's membership in the Socialist International and his strong support for a National Health Service.

Many in Europe welcomed the personal rapport between the two leaders. Longstanding British policy, which became more explicit with the Labor government, was to act as a sort of "yes-but" bridge between Americans and the rest of the world. The only way to get a hand on the steering wheel of American foreign policy was to agree with the driver and then throw in a few suggestions at the right moment to influence its course.

Even other nations on the Security Council were remarkably tolerant of this British role: it was a nasty job but someone had to do it. And it often seemed to work. It may seem like ancient history, but it was the British who persuaded the Bush administration to support resolution 1284, which offered hope of lifting the UN sanctions upon Iraqi compliance. (And we may pause and remember that they could never sell that policy to the Clinton administration and Madeline Albright, or the the Russians and the French who opposed it and abstained on the vote -- but are now proclaiming its continuing validity.)

This undervalued British role has been steadily eroding ever since George W. Bush invented the Axis of Evil. Blair has discovered that a hand on the steering wheel can't put the brakes on a runaway train. He succeeded in reinforcing Powell's attempts at multilateralism, but only at the cost of reinforcing Bush's obsession with Iraq. Between the two men, they persuaded Bush to take the UN road. But they totally failed to muzzle the radical hawks who infest the White House. As it became increasingly clear that the president perceived UN authorization as a favor to Blair, the task of the Blair-Powell team became impossible.

Blair soon found himself taking a series of self-defeating positions to secure at least a figleaf of multilateral support. For example, when Blair was confident getting a majority of votes in favor of the second resolution, he put forward the concept of an unreasonable veto to undermine the significance of the threatened French vote. Unfortunately, the idea, in effect, discounts the moral authority of a veto exercised by any member of the Permanent Five except the U.S. As a result, Blair has unilaterally disarmed Britain's own diplomatic deterrent. From now on, British ministers will have to explain why their veto has greater value than that of France.

But to give Blair his due, while he shares the moral certainty of Bush, he does have the courage, intellect and facility to argue his corner. The difference is clear when you compare Bush's so-called press conference, a carefully scripted media event, with Blair's repeated defense of his position in face of hostile questioning in the British Parliament. It's clear Bush would not survive even one such session. And while Bush is with us, chads and all, until the next election, Blair is risking his job and reputation on this call. Support for the United Nations is part of the Labor Party's constitution. But more importantly, most of its members -- like most Europeans -- see international lawlessness as paving the way to another world war. Worldwide opinion polls, not to mention British ones, show clearly that partnership with George W Bush is not helping Blair's reputation or his political prospects one little bit.

So what were Blair's choices as he huddled with remaining allies in war at the Azores conference in Portugal? He decided that sticking with his chum George is the moral thing to do, and that he will carry on regardless of missing or defeated UN resolutions. If there are casualties, if the Turks, Iranians, Saudis, Syrians and Israelis jump in the action, the war may begin to resemble a dry run for Armageddon. Blair is then, to put it succinctly, finished. As indeed the rest of us may be.

But if he is a lucky man, there will be a quick war, the Iraqis will use enough chemical and biological agents to prove the point of resolution 1441, and the Iraqi citizenry will greet the American and British troops as liberators. If Blair can then persuade George to secure a Kosovo-style Security Council resolution to ensure multilateral participation in governing a post-war Iraq, it will retrospectively make kosher the invasion by putting a UN-blue fig leaf on it. If Blair can pull it off, he is home free, scarred but still intact.

Whatever the outcome, there is a serious moral flaw in Blair's position. If he is truly more concerned with moral integrity than his political future, Tony should tell his friend George to back off, and throw his weight behind the demand for a longer timetable for the inspectors. It's the only course of action that would save him from becoming a household pet for a bunch of kooky extremists in the White House.

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