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Tony Blair: Dr. Faust — Or Mephistopheles?

Does the British Prime Minister resemble a German literary character?

September 19, 2003

Does the British Prime Minister resemble a German literary character?

Tony Blair has fallen on tough times recently, dodging questions about "dodgy dossiers" and having his government's — and his own credibility — challenged over WMDs and the case for going to war against Iraq.

Indeed, the former golden boy is more and more embattled. Gone is the boyish charm. What remains instead is a strangely haughty, ascetic yet narcissistic, figure.

In some news photographs, Tony Blair looked especially strange — like Richard Avedon's stark portrait of his dying father.

But another — perhaps more fitting — image that comes to mind is that of the tormented Dr. Faust, Goethe's memorable literary character who was willingly seduced by the devil.

At first blush, a British prime minister looking like a character from a German medieval myth is, of course, a sign of increasing cultural as well as economic integration of Europe. But wait — there are more twists to this conflation of imagery.

In many ways, Mr. Blair looks like a modern-day update on Dr. Faust. Just like the 16th century protagonist of that famous tragedy, Mr. Blair initially sought to make his mark on domestic policy — including a rebranding of Great Britain as “Cool Britannia.”

This was much like the knowledge of alchemy that Faust strived for — the way of turning base metal into gold.

But that knowledge proved increasingly illusory with the pricking of the stock market bubble and the persistent difficulties in upgrading Britain's notoriously shabby public services. Frustrated at home, Mr. Blair got himself seduced by the allure of military and political power.

However, the decision to go after Saddam Hussein's regime was not hatched in 10 Downing Street — but rather at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As Washington got increasingly caught up in anti-Saddam war fever, Tony Blair was torn between going along unquestionably and trying to prevent a unilateral U.S. strike.

In the end, he eagerly joined what was essentially a U.S. operation — with a small coalition fig leaf.

Sure enough, the Prime Minister would have been hard-pressed to resist the historic imperative for a British leader to maintain Britain's "special relationship" with the United States.

Also, President Bush and his government pulled out all the stops — including private visits by Mr. Blair to Camp David and to Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Those favors were extended to ensure that their ally would stand firmly by their side as the war against Iraq was planned and executed. Mr. Blair willingly gave in to this masterful — or was it transparent? — seduction.

In light of the ongoing WMD scandal, many people in Britain are now starting to see Blair not as an innocent Dr. Faust — as the above description would make him appear.

Rather, he is increasingly viewed by the British public as a Mephistopheles who actually convinced his nation to plunge itself into a military campaign — for dubious reasons and with an uncertain exit strategy.

As a matter of fact, it fits to a T. In Goethe's version, Mephistopheles initially follows Dr. Faust home disguised as a poodle.

This is eerily appropriate. Remember how in the run-up to the Iraq war — and continuing today — the British media were fond of portraying Mr. Blair as a "poodle" for his willingness to do the bidding of President Bush?

Either way, what matters here is that things didn't quite work out as planned for either of Goethe's characters. Although Dr. Faust was transformed into a vigorous young man, his love affair with a maiden, Gretchen, caused nothing but suffering all around. His military prowess turned out badly as well, as he ended up killing the brother of his beloved.

After a number of convoluted misadventures, Faust sought to redeem himself by setting out to improve the lot of mankind. But that too came to nothing. In any case, in the end the hero gained neither knowledge nor happiness, failing to be satisfied even with a fleeting moment.

In fact, it took many decades — and two impressive volumes of heavy German versifying — for Goethe's Dr. Faust to reap the grim rewards of his bargain. For Tony Blair, in keeping with the fast-paced 21st century, the disappointment appears to have come a lot sooner.

No wonder. His Labor Party lost hundreds of council seats in the local election in May 2003, the first test of the public mood since the 2001 elections — and a de facto referendum on the Iraq war.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Nearly two-thirds of Britons now believe he misled the public over weapons of mass destruction.

Even The Economist magazine — which supported both the war to remove Saddam Hussein and the British participation in the "Coalition of the Willing" — or, in the context of Faust, the "Coalition of the Willingly Seduced" called him Tony Bliar.

Of course, this whole issue goes well beyond — and is far more serious — than references to literary master works, however fitting they may appear.

British military personnel have come under deadly fire in their occupation sector in Southern Iraq — a supposedly staunchly anti-Saddam, Shiite-populated area.

It is becoming clearer almost by the day that — in making the case for war — the powers-that-be in London and Washington played fast and loose with the intelligence information available.

For the public's perception of Mr. Blair, that means that it is shifting ever more from him being a Dr. Faust-like figure — a good person seduced by the devil — to Mephistopheles, who cynically deceived his victims.

Could things get even worse? Quite possibly. In Goethe's play, the real loser turns out to be Mephistopheles. He had made a bargain for the man's soul — but at the end it manages to slip his grip.