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Tony Blair — Prince or Poodle?

Has Tony Blair been showing remarkable political flexibility in supporting U.S. foreign policies—or just-in-time opportunism?

January 31, 2003

Has Tony Blair been showing remarkable political flexibility in supporting U.S. foreign policies—or just-in-time opportunism?

Tony Blair probably would have been elected British prime minister in May 1997 no matter what. Tory fatigue had settled in among voters in the United Kingdom after 18 years of unbroken one-party rule. His predecessor John Major was highly unpopular — and for most of his term in office, had been a "lame" duck.

Taking no chances, Mr. Blair — after becoming the leader of the Labor Party in 1994 — reinvented the party virtually from scratch. He cut ties with trade unions, removed the clause in the party program that called for common ownership of means of production and declared himself a staunch fiscal conservative.

Mr. Blair also maneuvered deftly on national security issues, defying the pacifist tendencies of many in his party to position himself as a "hawk" (at least by European standards) when it came to all matters concerning national defense. All these steps were part of transforming his party into "New Labor."

When elected, Mr. Blair was a fresh, clean, new face. At age 43, he was also the youngest prime minister to lead Great Britain since 1812. Was it any wonder then that the world leader he felt closest to was U.S. President Bill Clinton?

In fact, Mr. Blair fully acknowledged that he patterned his own revolution in the Labor Party on Mr. Clinton's reshaping of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Don't forget that the former U.S. President was once chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the brain trust of the centrist "New Democrats."

And it was Mr. Blair who, in tandem with Bill Clinton, organized a number of Third Way seminars in Washington, which were attended by such modern-day “pariahs” as Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Rightly or wrongly, the Third Way approach was ridiculed by U.S. conservatives.

Fast forward to 2003. The occupant of the White House has changed — and so have U.S. policies, in many cases dramatically, both at home and abroad. In short, Mr. Bush could not be more different from Mr. Clinton in terms of personality and ideology.

Yet Mr. Blair appears to have taken this radical change — which tripped up many other European leaders and statesmen — in stride. He is just as much "a friend of George" as he once was "a friend of Bill".

Under Mr. Blair's leadership, the United Kingdom has proved to be the only permanent UN Security Council member to give virtually unqualified backing to Washington in its policies toward Iraq.

Needless to say, the global political landscape has changed over the past two years, especially with the election of Mr. Bush in 2000.

So Mr. Blair could use Sir John Maynard Keynes' famous adage to explain his friendship with Mr. Bush, who is so much the opposite of Mr. Clinton: “Of course, sir, I have changed my opinion, since the facts have changed. Wouldn’t you do the same under those circumstances?”

This, of course, is in keeping with his country's tradition. Great Britain has always been proud of its "special relationship" with the transatlantic giant.

Mr. Blair especially has made a point of maintaining — and even strengthening — that transatlantic bond. Many of his fellow countrymen, while they may be critical of specific U.S. policies, broadly approve of this strategic alliance.

But despite the deep U.S.-British friendship, there are questions as to what benefits Great Britain — as well as the world community — reaps from throwing its lot in with the United States so wholeheartedly.

Mr. Blair's own spin-meisters claim that he is essential in moderating Mr. Bush's tendency to go it alone. For example, they argue that Mr. Blair played a key part in keeping Mr. Bush from dumping the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia unilaterally.

This is certainly a valuable contribution. But it doesn't change the fact that Mr. Bush quit the treaty against the opposition of much of the rest of the world.

Maybe more importantly, it is very hard for anyone — including his own people — to discern what influence Tony Blair may be having in the current Iraq debate.

As opposition to a war is on the rise in Britain, Mr. Blair once again finds himself described as a poodle, who is all too happy to jump into his (American) master's lap if told to do so. While such name-calling is certainly unfair, Mr. Blair in part has himself to blame.

To many observers, including in his own country, he comes across as too much of a cheerleader and salesman for the American war effort — and as too little of an advocate for moderation.

It is almost as if Mr. Blair wants to replay the events of 1990. At that time, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously urged then-U.S. President George Bush to stay the course against Saddam Hussein.

"This is not the time to go wobbly, George," she reportedly admonished her counterpart across the Atlantic.

It hardly seems, however, that the current George Bush needs such encouragement from the "Iron Gentleman" in London.

What else could Mr. Blair have done to exact a higher price from Washington for his support — and to maybe mend some of the fences between the United States and Europe that were trampled in recent rhetorical exchanges? As America's chief ally, it is not Tony Blair's primary job to be even more hawkish than the current mood in Washington already is.

One crucial issue that Mr. Blair should have addressed much more actively is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By striking a "grand bargain" with the United States, he could have ensured that after regime change in Iraq has been completed, the United States would commit to bringing about a lasting peace in the Middle East.

To calm the extreme nervousness in the Middle East, this should have included a firm timetable — and a commitment from the United States to get tough on Mr. Sharon. One area where this might become necessary, for example, is the question of West Bank settlements.

Striking such a bargain could work wonders for Mr. Blair in shoring up domestic support — and addressing an issue that in most Europeans' eyes is even more pressing than removing Mr. Hussein.

Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Blair has decided to sell his country's support short. Sure, there are some benefits from being a staunch ally.

For example, British defense contractors are the only European defense firms with significant sales to the Pentagon, which is flush with defense dollars (especially when compared to Europe's militaries).

But all things considered, it appears that when decision-making time comes around, Mr. Blair's seat at the table has been bought by giving up a lot of potential influence.

In addition, it seems that Mr. Blair's true agenda is not very different from Mr. Bush's. From the get-go, the U.S. president has been determined to win re-election in 2004 — and thus tweak his nose at his father, George Bush, Sr.

Mr. Blair, on the other hand, would like to match or surpass the Tories' record of 18 years in office — or at least Margaret Thatcher's 11 years in Downing Street No. 10. He has already won one reelection.

He only needs two more full terms of five years — and for now, playing second fiddle to Washington suits his plans just fine. After all, to quote Mr. Blair, being Prime Minister is “an absolute privilege."