Tony Blair is one of the most popular prime ministers of modern times. In Washington, that is.
Sadly for Mr. Blair—who is expected to announce his resignation today or tomorrow, after years of speculation about his intentions—he elicits much less enthusiasm on his own side of the Atlantic.
In fact, his impending departure is just one more confirmation of a dictum coined by the deceased British conservative Enoch Powell: All political careers end in failure.
The man who 10 years ago led his party to the biggest landslide win in Britain since 1945 now sees his poll ratings languish in the 30’s. In last week’s local and devolved assembly elections, Labor received just 27 percent of the vote.
Mr. Blair is unusual in one respect, however: His wounds have not been inflicted by the slings and arrows of his enemies. They were sustained in a fatal embrace with his friends. Mr. Blair’s decision to cleave closely to the Bush administration and to offer wholehearted support for the Iraq war defined—and ultimately destroyed—his career.
Were it not for Iraq, “people would be thinking of him as a pretty accomplished, pretty successful prime minister,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with the left-of-center Guardian newspaper. “Instead, he is going out to catcalls and hisses.”
Mr. Blair’s strongest remaining defenders, for all the good it does him, are in America—particularly on the conservative right.
“I think it is much too soon to judge Blair’s legacy,” said Richard Perle, the prominent neoconservative. “He is a figure of immense historical importance. I think he will get a better press from future writers than from current ones.”
Mr. Perle also responded strongly to the notion, commonly held in Britain, that Mr. Blair became the “poodle” of President Bush:
“I don’t know where that came from. The only reason to say that was to suggest that anyone who supported the United States was a supplicant. That was never the situation,” Mr. Perle said.
Mr. Blair’s popularity in America isn’t limited to allies (or former allies) of the Bush administration.
To a certain strand within the Democratic Party—those who became more amenable to the notion of liberal interventionism during the Clinton years, in large part because of crises like Rwanda, Serbia and Kosovo—Mr. Blair was always something of a hero and a standard-bearer.
A speech the British prime minister gave in Chicago back in April 1999 outlined what became known as the Blair Doctrine, a worldview built on a sense of global interdependence.
“We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not,” Mr. Blair said. “We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
That view—and the erudition with which Mr. Blair was consistently able to express it—won him wide-eyed admiration from some American liberals.
“In a way, I think most Democrats are of that lineage,” said Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But they are not able to express it in so robust and thoughtful a way as Blair is.”
Iraq has, of course, made it much more difficult to sell the Democratic base on such grand concepts. Mr. Beinart, himself an erstwhile liberal supporter of the war, has one explanation of where everything went wrong for Mr. Blair:
“I guess I came to believe that Iraq was a violation of Blair’s own creed,” he said. “He has argued that it was an extension of the things he said in the 1990’s, but those were very different from the ideas the Bush people had. Blair argued for the importance of international institutions and the need for a new international architecture.”