Respond to this Article March 2004

Blair Hitch Project

How Clinton's ideological fellow traveler became Bush's closest ally.

By Kenneth S. Baer

"Be his friend. Be his best friend. Be the guy he turns to." That was the advice Bill Clinton gave his close ally and ideological fellow traveler, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, weeks before Clinton was to hand over the reins of power to George W. Bush.

In the annals of diplomacy, it's not the most sophisticated theory of great-power politics, but it proved to be effective. In their first joint news conference in February 2001, when asked if the two leaders had anything in common, Bush responded that they both used Colgate toothpaste. Many--including those in Blair's inner circle--thought that dentifrice was the beginning and end of the discussion. After all, Blair was not only Clinton's buddy and contemporary, at ease among the cosmopolitan elites of Britain and the United States; he was the co-architect of the "Third Way" progressive response to the conservatism that Bush held dear. More than that, as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained to a British official early in his term, "You should really know, the President doesn't feel comfortable with Europeans. He much prefers Latin Americans."

Tony Blair
by Philip Stephens
Viking Press, $25.95

Despite his lack of Hispanic heritage, Blair and the new president did become friends, and their bond deepened after the attacks of September 11. Bush had no stronger ally in the buildup to and invasion of Iraq than Blair. He withstood defections from his party's backbenches, protests in the streets of London, and growing alienation from his allies in Western Europe to back the United States. In the run-up to the war, Vice President Cheney, in the words of one Blair aide, "waged a guerrilla war" against the British prime minister's desire to pass another U.N. resolution before the invasion. The Pentagon locked Britain out of post-war planning for Iraq, and it seemed that every time that Bush got in trouble--such as when questions arose surrounding his claim that Iraq tried to acquire nuclear material from Niger--he blamed the British. Yet through it all, Blair never wavered in his support for Bush's plans.

How and why Bill Clinton's best friend became Bush's is part of the fascinating and important story Philip Stephens tells in his new biography, Tony Blair: Making of a World Leader. Stephens, a long-time Blair watcher and senior editor at the Financial Times, provides in this lively, intelligent, and accessible book valuable insight into Blair's background and political ideology. He deftly traces the arc of Blair's commitment to "community" from his spiritual awakening at Oxford to his domestic and foreign policy as prime minister. At home, his conviction meant rejecting the right-wing belief that all one needs to succeed is for government to get out of the way, and rejecting the left-wing view that all one needs is more centralized government. Abroad, this belief fostered Blair's keen appreciation of the interdependency of nations in the era of globaliz-ation and in the importance of countries working together to enforce global norms, using force where necessary.

Contrary, then, to what many of his critics charge, Blair, Stephens argues, while definitely a political animal, is not guided solely by tactical positioning. Indeed, fidelity to his philosophy is what made Blair natural allies alike with New Democratic reformer Clinton and with Republican crusader Bush.

Unlike many in his party's leadership, Tony Blair was not born into the family of Labour, but chose it. The son of a barrister, who himself harbored dreams of becoming a Tory MP, Blair grew up resolutely middle class in the northeastern city of Durham. He attended the elite Fettes College boarding school in Edinburgh and continued his studies at Oxford where he avoided student politics; but, as Stephens explains, those years in the city of dreaming spires were critical in shaping Blair's political outlook. As an undergraduate, Blair underwent a religious awakening and was introduced to the work of the early 20th-century Scottish theologian John Macmurray.

Macmurray's central insight was that societies are not defined by the individuals within them, but rather communities are critical in shaping the lives of individuals. First through the family, and then through other wider networks in civil society, strong communities create mutually supportive environments in which individuals can realize their full potential. Transplanted into the political realm, this view compels one to reject both the libertarianism of the new right as well as the statism of the old left. To Blair, as he explained to Stephens in an interview last summer, Macmurray offered a philosophy of "how you retain the sense of solidarity without becoming the collectivization of society. And so that concept at the time struck me as the right concept politically, as well as theologically." That idea has stuck with him for his entire career.

In 1983, Blair--now married to another London barrister, Cherie Booth--was elected to Parliament at the high-water mark of Margaret Thatcher's dominance. It seemed to many that he had merely won a berth on the Titanic of British politics. But as with the Republican Party after Watergate or the Democrats after Mike Dukakis, this actually opened a window of opportunity, since Labour had no choice but to seek new ideas and leadership. Seizing the opening, Blair worked with his officemate Gordon Brown, another newly elected MP, and later with party communications guru Peter Mandelson, to chart a new course--one built on the values of community and interdependence that Blair holds dear, as well as on the middle-class sensibilities that come naturally to him. In 1994, after three subsequent general election defeats, Blair was elected party leader, and immediately set out to create a new Labour Party.

As leader, Blair was determined to reorient Labour from its fixation on policy prescriptions to the first principles that would define the progressive project: opportunity, fairness, social justice, community, and responsibility. All Labour proposals, then, would be reevaluated as to how well they served these ends. This not only would make Labour politics more palatable to "middle England," but it also would serve as a tool to strip some of the most outdated and unpopular policy stances from Labour's platform. The seriousness of Blair's intent was crystal clear at his first party conference as leader, where he unveiled the party's new name "New Labour" and began the process of burying Clause IV of the party's constitution that called for the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange."

This modernization campaign touched every aspect of the party and raised the hackles of the Labour left. But slowly the effort to remake the party took hold, and in 1997 it bore fruit: New Labour was elected to a 179-seat parliamentary majority (35 seats larger than Thatcher's at her 1983 height). Tony Blair became the first Labour prime minister in 18 years.

The parallels between Blair's New Labour and Bill Clinton's New Democrats (as well as the close friendship between the two leaders) have been documented previously. But many have assumed that, since Blair was elected after Clinton, New Labour was the child of the New Democrats. With his explanation of Blair's intellectual influences and the history of his battle to reform the party, Stephens makes the persuasive argument that this was not the case. New Labour grew up alongside the New Democrats; it did not spring from it.

As prime minister, Blair extended his beliefs on community beyond his country to the world. "If individuals could thrive only in strong societies," explains Stephens, "so nations would prosper only in a secure international community." To Blair, advanced, powerful democracies should bond together through multilateral institutions such as the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations and take responsibility for policing the world when its norms are violated. But there was both a realism and a morality to his vision. As he said to the South African parliament in 1999, "When the international community agrees to certain objectives and then fails to implement them, those that can act, must."

This muscular multilateralism was behind Blair's enthusiasm for NATO intervention in Kosovo. It also shaped his response to the attacks of September 11. In Blair's eyes, the rise of international Islamic terrorism as well as the presence of rogue nations, failed states, and easily obtainable weapons of mass destruction posed an existential threat not just to Britain or the United States, but to the international system that gives both individual prosperity and national strength. At the same time, Blair saw another threat to international order: the United States choosing to "jump out of the international system" and pursue its enemies alone with ferocious force. This appreciation of these very different, but serious, challenges to the world order is why in the fall of 2001, Blair traveled more than 50,000 miles on a mission to convince dozens of world leaders to join the coalition against terrorism. He wanted to defeat an enemy, but do so while building a community.

This became tougher once Bush's attention turned to Iraq. Stephens argues that the British PM believed that regime change in Iraq was, in Blair's oft-repeated phrase, "the right thing to do," because Saddam was oppressing his people and because the combination of rogue nationhood, presumed WMDs, and the presence of international terrorist cells in that country posed a serious threat to international order. But Blair had a very different goal than the Bush administration for marching to Baghdad. He wanted an Iraq invasion to send a clear signal to the world that the international community intended to build a new security system based on peacemaking, nation-building, and, of course, military might. He emphatically did not want it to be seen as a display of raw American power.

Blair tried desperately to convince President Bush of his view, but the influence of Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their associates was too great. Cheney, reports Stephens, was particularly eager to go to war. "Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools," Cheney told one British official in the summer of 2002. Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby "made little secret of their scorn for multilateralism," writes Stephens. "Oh, dear, we'd better not do that," Libby would jibe, "or we might upset the Prime Minister." Faced with going along with a war in whose goals he strongly believed, but in whose public rationale he did not, Blair had no choice. He understood that Britain was no longer a "great power," but rather--in his words--a "pivotal power" bridging Europe and America. A loss of support on either continent would diminish his influence on the other.

For a few days in March of last year, it looked as if Blair would have to pay the politician's ultimate price for his backing of Bush. Three of his ministers resigned in protest, and it appeared that New Labour support for the war was crumbling. Although one-third of his own party's MPs voted against the war, Blair survived, yet at the cost of incalculable political capital in Europe and among the rank and file at home.

In many ways, the leader of America's greatest ally stands alone today. Most of Western Europe rejects his foreign policy and is repulsed by his closeness to Bush. In America, many Democrats have all but abandoned the Third Way in which, just five years earlier, they and New Labour found common cause. At the same time, Republicans, with whom Blair joined in the war against Iraq, have shown near total disregard for his desire to fight the war against terror through international alliances and institutions. After seven years in office and no real rival for a third term, then, Blair finds himself in an unlikely position. His fate is inextricably tied up with that of an unwavering ally, but not a best friend.

Kenneth S. Baer, a Democratic political consultant, is the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton and received his doctorate from Oxford University.


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