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April 04, 2006

Mr. Blair Comes to Washington
Posted by Derek Chollet

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is scheduled to land in Washington soon, and while this visit probably won’t be his last, it seems a little like a swan song.  Each day speculation rises about when he will depart 10 Downing Street, with some suggesting that he might announce his intention to do so this summer.  Without question Blair has been the most important global partner to two American Presidents – Clinton and Bush – and should rank alongside Churchill and Thatcher as one of the most consequential Prime Ministers for U.S.-UK relations.   

After winning an election last year that many thought he could lose, Blair has had about as difficult a year politically as one can imagine – driven by discontent within his own Labor Party and the rise of the young Conservative leader, David Cameron, who is the first fresh face the Tories have had in decades. 

His close partnership with Bush and steadfast support for the Iraq War has also damaged his reputation in American progressive circles.  Not long ago some hawkish progressives touted themselves as “Blair Democrats,” identifying with Blair’s steadfast commitment to stand up for values and fight terror, and embracing broad vision to fight global ills like poverty and environmental degradation.  While the post-Iraq politics of the moment compel few to identify themselves as Blair Democrats anymore, I believe that Blair remains the most compelling, and thoughtful, progressive politician talking about the global challenges we face.

In the past few weeks he’s given two major speeches about big ideas – about the threat from Islamic extremism, the fight against terror, globalization, and the importance of alliances.  He’s planning to give a third during his trip to the U.S., rumored to be about what needs to be done to deal with a Hamas led Palestinian government.  All these speeches should be read closely – they outline an approach of progressive internationalism that we can all learn from, and that American Democrats would be wise to emulate.

His first speech, delivered March 21 in London, focuses on the wider threat from Islamic extremism.  Pushing back on the notion that the West’s behavior is the main problem with the Muslim world, Blair says that:

“…we must reject the thought that somehow we are the authors of our own distress; that if only we altered this decision or that, the extremism would fade away.  The only way to win is: to recognise this phenomenon is a global ideology; to see all areas, in which it operates, as linked; and to defeat it by values and ideas set in opposition to those of the terrorists….

“‘We’ is not the West.  ‘We’ are as much Muslim as Christian or Jew or Hindu.  ‘We’ are those who believe in religious tolerance, openness to others, to democracy, liberty and human rights administered by secular courts.  This is not a clash between civilisations.  It is a clash about civilisation.”

But perhaps Blair was at his most eloquent last week in Australia, where he gave his second speech before the Australian parliament.  There he spoke out in a way that has sadly become rare for a European politician – a clear and unstinting defense of America and the importance of a strong alliance with the United States.  Like many of us (even including Bush), Blair worries about creeping isolationism in the U.S.  Speaking directly to his Australian partners, Blair argued:

“An active foreign policy of engagement not isolation…cannot be achieved without a strong alliance,” Blair argued.  “This alliance does not end with, but it does begin with America.  For us in Europe and for you, this alliance is central.  And I want to speak plainly here.  I do not always agree with the US.  Sometimes they can be difficult friends to have.  But the strain of, frankly, anti-American feeling in parts of European politics is madness when set against the long-term interests of the world we believe in.  The danger with America today is not that they are too much involved.  The danger is they decide to pull up the drawbridge and disengage.  We need them involved.  We want them engaged.  The reality is that none of the problems that press in on us, can be resolved or even contemplated without them.”

To be sure, Blair is not loved by all.  But as the British journalist Gerald Baker recently wrote in the Weekly Standard, “just when you prepare yourself to welcome the departure of this oddly cynical and infuriatingly political man, he reminds us of just how much he will be missed when he is gone.”


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I suppose the first two questions that come to mind regarding Blair's visit is this: will he and Bush be discussing an Iran air strike? And what will Blair's position be?

"Clash ABOUT civilization" is a nice line, but viewing it as a global clash is itself a major problem. We've gone halfway toward understanding how to pull the rug from under UBL. Not only should we reject a clash with the Muslim world, we should reject the idea of a monolithic global extremist movement. And we should undermine the grievances to which UBL appeals. Also, nowithstanding that no US or Western policy justifies terror, and recognizing the disingenuity of many Arab leader, the festering Palestinian situation ranks with the occupation of Iraq as a mobilizer of sympathy.

If only the US had a liberal leader that understood the world the way Mr. Blair does. We could possibly be done in Iraq and have a united front against an Iranian government that want nukes.

"After winning an election last year that many thought he could lose"? Maybe in the wildest dreams of a few Tories; not otherwise.

"After winning an election last year that many thought he could lose"? The fact that his majority was so small was the major surprise - a 2% swing would have left the Conservatives in power.

Blair is now a busted flush. He has no support in his own country - even his own party are urging him to stand aside for Gordon Brown the sooner the better.

Sadly, I fear his arrogance, and his love of the world stage, will mean that, like Margaret Thatcher (his political hero) he stays in office for way too long.

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