As British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood before Parliament on March 18 to make the case for war with Iraq, he was also making an appeal for his political survival. Mr. Blair has had a brutal few weeks: His diplomatic efforts to serve as a bridge between President Bush and the United Nations were officially declared dead at a press conference in the Azores. His decision to commit British forces to an operation without broad international approval provoked rebellion in his own Labour Party and resignations from his cabinet and administration. And his popularity has suffered enormously among a British constituency that has remained less convinced of the righteousness of the planned military action than their American counterparts.
But even as he suffers at home, his popularity has soared in America. Liberals-including many who remain ambivalent about the war-have idealized him and his consensus-seeking efforts, in many cases demonstrating an enthusiasm for Mr. Blair far in excess of that which they’ve shown for any of the prospective Democratic challengers to Mr. Bush in 2004. And top Democratic strategists are increasingly thinking of Mr. Blair as a model for what their next champion should be like.
At the same time, Mr. Blair’s staunch support of the Bush administration and its hard line toward Saddam Hussein has made him a much-admired figure among many conservatives, despite his “third way” roots. In fact, the price Mr. Blair is paying in Britain for his support has cemented his popularity among Americans, regardless of political persuasion.
“I think he’s become a hero in the United States across all sorts of levels,” said Harold Evans, former editor of The Times and longtime friend of Mr. Blair. “I think that he has won admiration among the masses of Americans, who see him as expressing the best of British virtues without any of the pompous bulldoggery. And the intellectual classes who despise George Bush have come to see Blair as the enlightened and rational expression of anti-terrorism while despairing of Bush’s diplomacy.”
Mr. Blair’s notoriety hasn’t escaped the attention of those public officials who, unlike the Prime Minister, depend on the support of American voters for their livelihood. Peter King, a Republican Congressman from Long Island, said that Mr. Blair “has become an icon” and is “almost too popular here for his own good.”
Democrat Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn went further. “Tony Blair is arguably the most popular American politician right now,” he said. “He’s the stand-up guy that the right loves and the Clintonian figure that the Democrats love. Even among anti-war people, there’s a fondness for Tony Blair, and I think most Democrats wish he were leading this, with Bush taking advice from him.”
While Mr. Blair’s standing with American voters is surely small consolation to him as his popularity plummets at home, it has helped the Bush administration’s ability to muster popular support for the war. It is not unfair, in fact, to say that Tony Blair built the pro-war coalition that currently constitutes a majority of American public opinion. Mr. Blair’s conspicuous support helps Mr. Bush, at least technically, to answer the accusation that his policies are unilateralist, and that America is without important allies. More than that, however, Mr. Blair’s arguments have been instrumental in dampening opposition to the war from liberals and even winning the support of many progressive leaders and opinion makers.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times jokingly urged the Democrats to draft Mr. Blair to run for President, and Mr. Friedman’s colleague, Bill Keller, credits Mr. Blair for helping to inspire the creation of the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” which “includes op-ed regulars at [ The New York Times ] and The Washington Post , the editors of The New Yorker , The New Republic and Slate , columnists in Time and Newsweek .” The Economist said that Mr. Blair “helped prevent the war from becoming a partisan issue” in America and added that “without Mr. Blair’s overt support, Mr. Bush could easily have ended up looking like a lone cowboy-or Captain Ahab in crazed pursuit of the great white whale.”
“I think George Bush should say a prayer every day for Tony Blair,” said Ronald Asmus, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who served in the State Department under Bill Clinton. “The fact that George Bush has a left-wing British prime minister on his side makes it possible for people who don’t like him, but who want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, to sign up for the strategy. And personally, I find that Blair makes a much more compelling case than Bush.”
Supporters of Mr. Bush say that Mr. Blair has been important in other ways, by actually helping to refine the administration’s strategy for pursuing military action. “While President Bush has put an emphasis on demonstrating that this is all in our national interest, Blair has been making a more liberal, humanitarian argument,” said Mr. King. “I think that Blair’s argument has been very effective, and Bush has been incorporating that.”
The Blair Effect
Indeed, Mr. Blair’s effect on the Bush administration’s pursuit of regime change in Iraq has been more than stylistic. The very fact that Mr. Bush went to the U.N. Security Council to seek a resolution to disarm Iraq is widely considered to have been at Mr. Blair’s behest. And Mr. Bush’s March 14 press conference in the White House Rose Garden to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-however perfunctorily-was undoubtedly another concession to Mr. Blair, who had been desperate to demonstrate to his party’s doves that the overthrow of Mr. Hussein would lead to progress in the moribund peace process.
There’s some evidence that this approach is succeeding: The March 18 vote in the British Parliament on the authorization of war against Iraq-a vote to which Mr. Blair has tied his stewardship of the Labour Party-went heavily in his favor. Even so, his closeness to Mr. Bush will continue to be a liability among many Labourites, who regard the President as a reckless cowboy. As an example: In Mr. Bush’s March 17 announcement of a 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq, he made no mention of Mr. Blair. This was surely regarded by Mr. Blair as a favor.
He’s had other problems as well, such as the recent resignations of one member of his cabinet and two lower-level administration members who opposed any British role in military action without approval from the United Nations. It was also Mr. Blair who bore the political brunt of two humiliating and high-profile intelligence blunders. And, of course, Mr. Blair must be said to have failed in his ambitious goal of engineering a compromise between the American and British governments and the U.N.
But despite these setbacks, Mr. Blair’s successes in affecting the events have made him something of a model for Democrats, who have struggled to find relevance in the debate over the war, and whose seeming indecisiveness on the issue helped seal their historic defeat in the 2002 Congressional elections. In a number of recent speeches, former President Bill Clinton held Mr. Blair aloft as an exemplar of principled multilateralism, and he even took the step of penning an op-ed in the March 18 issue of the left-leaning Guardian to remind its readers of the similarities between their prime minister and himself.
Al From, the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, who helped shape Mr. Clinton’s policy platform, feels that Mr. Blair has been demonstrating a firmness on the war issue that Democrats will need to emulate if they are to have a chance of defeating Mr. Bush. “The real issue for Democratic candidates is whether they’re willing to go into the lion’s den, or whether they’re going to back off because they’re afraid of flak in the party,” Mr. From said. “Blair has conviction and he stands by his conviction, and he also happens to be very skilled politically. Even though at one point 75 percent of his party didn’t agree with him, he stood up, and now he’s bringing some of them around. That’s what real leadership is.” A recent poll in The Guardian showed an increase in public support for the war in Britain, although a majority was still opposed.
Interestingly, some observers see a political purpose in the unstinting Democratic praise of Mr. Blair. “I think even anti-war Democrats who aren’t necessarily in agreement with Blair on Iraq see the value of comparing him to Bush,” said Wayne Parent, who heads the political-science department at Louisiana State University. “They’ve found that the way to criticize Bush is, ‘Why isn’t he Blair?’”
Some Republicans see the Democrats’ Blair worship as a manifestation of their own weakness on the war question. “The Democrats are trying to idealize Blair and say that any Democratic President would be like him-even though Blair is a lot more supportive of Bush than they are,” said Mr. King. “The Democrats have this hopelessly mixed position over there, so they’re trying to hold up Tony Blair, who has achieved almost icon status here.”
Mr. King was asked if he thought the Democrats might be onto something. “Let me put it this way,” he said: “I’ve got some pictures of me and Blair in my files, and I’m definitely going to be pulling them out to put in my next newsletter.”