Since Sept. 11 of last year, Tony Blair has roamed the globe in support of the U.S.-led war on terror. He’s traveled to India, to Pakistan, to Israel, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere and served as an intermediary between President Bush and European leaders. But overlooked in all this diplomacy has been the boost the British prime minister’s backing gives Bush within the United States, by virtue of his appeal to American liberal elites and intellectuals. Blair isn’t just Bush’s ambassador to the world—he’s Bush’s ambassador to America.
Or at least to one part of it. Like their European counterparts, American intellectuals and liberals sometimes view Bush as a gun-totin’, yee-hawin’ Yosemite Sam. They’re suspicious of his unilateral instincts, and they’re comforted when Blair stands resolutely behind him. (As the Economist put it last month, for Bush the political value of British troops “far outweighs their military utility.”) As Blair has become increasingly vocal about the need to take pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein, even Blair critic Andrew Sullivan has joined the lovefest, calling the prime minister “Bush’s translator and facilitator” who “adds rhetorical nuance and diplomatic finesse” to the president’s blunt decrees.
But Blair does more than merely rhetorically pretty up Bush’s policies to make them palatable to liberals. He’s an articulate exponent of the liberal case for war—one that involves nation-building in Afghanistan and, as The Nation’sDavid Corn put it in the Los Angeles Times, “defining the war on terrorism as one component of a wider project … an extensive campaign for global justice.” Blair unveiled that project last October in his widely praised speech outlining the evidence against Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. He conceptually linked the need for an international battle against terrorism with global efforts to reduce pollution and promote free trade. “Nations act in their own self-interest. Of course they do,” Blair proclaimed. “But what is the lesson of the financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or world trade? It is that our self-interest and our mutual interests are inextricably woven together.”
With his faith in the power of multilateralism and the international community, Blair subscribes to a foreign policy that shares as much with American liberal interventionists as it does with the unilateral neoconservatives and realists who divide the Bush administration. (For a shorthand definition of the distinctions between “neocons,” “realcons,” and liberal interventionists, scroll down to the bottom of this “Explainer” column.) Bush urges striking Iraq mainly out of pre-emptive self-defense. Blair, on the other hand, stresses largely humanitarian motives. Of course, Blair will mention security at times, just as Bush will mention justice or human rights. But their areas of primary emphasis are the reverse. According to this week’s Time, Britain’s forthcoming Iraq dossier will emphasize Saddam’s atrocities, including his torture of his own citizens and his murder of 100,000 Kurds to preserve his grip on power. Last year, in an interview with Anne Applebaum for London’s Sunday Telegraph, Blair said values could sometimes trump national interest in foreign policy: “There used to be an idea that you just looked after your own national interest, and of course it’s true that you have to look after your own national interest. [But] I also think that there is a moral dimension to it.”
That tough-minded emphasis on humanitarianism and the need to promote Western values is in keeping with Blair’s efforts in Kosovo, where he pushed a reticent Bill Clinton into preparing for the use of ground troops, a step that most believe persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to surrender power. Blair has also kept British planes patrolling the no-fly zones above Iraq, while other European leaders have abandoned the effort. In his October speech on Bin Laden, Blair said Britain would have a “moral duty” to intervene in Rwanda were genocide to break out again today.
In his interview with Applebaum, Blair spoke of the isolation he felt during the Kosovo war: “The country was obviously asking, why are you doing this?” He’ll need the resolve he drew on then to get through his current political crisis at home. A recent poll published in the Daily Mirror showed that 71 percent of British voters oppose going to war with Iraq without United Nations approval, and 38 percent went so far as to agree that Blair “is Bush’s poodle.” More than 100 members of Blair’s Labor Party in Parliament have signed a motion expressing “deep unease” and urging “restraint” in dealing with Saddam.
As the Sunday Telegraph put it last week, “If the war goes badly, it could be Mr. Blair who is destined for ‘regime change.’ ” But a war that goes well and creates greater stability in the Middle East could strengthen Blair’s hand, and it could also distract from the troubles his party faces on the domestic front. He’s not in any immediate danger of losing power—his party holds 410 of the 658 seats in Parliament, a huge majority.
Still, why stick his neck out quite so far? The simplest explanation is the most persuasive one: Blair genuinely believes in the multilateral theory of intervention he espouses. “A foreign journalist said to me the other day, ‘I don’t understand it Mr. Blair. You’re very left on Africa and Kyoto. But you’re very right on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. It doesn’t make sense,’ ” Blair said Tuesday. “But it does. The key characteristic of today’s world is interdependence. Your problem becomes my problem. They have to be tackled collectively.” The face-off with Saddam gives Blair an opportunity to do what his Third Way counterpart Clinton never did: use his charisma and popularity to advance an unpopular cause that he sees as farsighted and in the public interest.
But there’s another reason, too. Blair’s public devotion to Bush pays off in private influence, as well as greater glory for Britain. Blair believes it’s part of his job as prime minister to buddy up to the American president. And there’s some evidence the strategy has worked. As detailed in Dan Balz and Bob Woodward’s “10 Days in September” series for the Washington Post, Blair sent Bush a five-page memo the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, outlining how he would structure the war on terrorism. The memo contained many proposals that Bush adopted: presenting evidence linking Bin Laden and al-Qaida to 9/11, giving an ultimatum to the Taliban, increasing support for the Northern Alliance, and jump-starting the Middle East peace process. During the buildup to war with Iraq, Blair’s sway is evident, too. Bush’s speech Thursday to the United Nations, with its emphasis on Iraq’s violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, read as if it were written by Blair’s speechwriters.
So far, of course, Bush has yet to spell out the case for war with Iraq in a way that’s convincing to American liberal elites. Perhaps his Thursday speech did the trick. It’s more likely, though, that Tony Blair will have to do it for him.