What could be more hurtful than a close friend's ingratitude? His gratitude at least if you're Tony Blair and the buddy in question is George W. Bush. Later today in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Bush is set to dole out a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Blair, Britain's former Prime Minister. Blair has earned the bauble previous recipients include Nelson Mandela and Doris Day "for [his] efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad," according to the White House. Blair's spokesman seemed to tacitly acknowledge that Blair is being feted as much for the exercise of hard power as soft, describing the medal as a "great honor" that "reflects the true courage of the men and women of the British armed forces."
Jaundiced Britons at any rate, the kind who write for newspapers and pontificate on current affairs interpret the award somewhat differently. News of the distinction has garnered headlines ranging from the quizzical ("Does Tony Blair Deserve a Medal?") to the declarative ("Blair's Medal of Dishonor"). "It is for services rendered," Clare Short, Britian's former Secretary of State for Development, told the Times of London. This is not meant as a compliment. Short criticized U.S. aid efforts in Afghanistan and resigned from Blair's Cabinet three months after the invasion of Iraq, which she had only reluctantly backed.
This isn't the first time that Blair has been singled out for a high honor. In July 2003, Blair flew to Washington to address Congress in acceptance of another award, the Congressional Gold Medal. He never returned to actually pick up the medal. This omission continues to feed speculation, chief among it that Blair wishes to distance himself from Bush. His attendance at today's ceremony at least gives that notion the lie. (See pictures of Bush and Blair's enduring friendship.)
Indeed, Blair's loyalty to Bush seems unshakable. Everyone has had a pal who is more trouble than he's worth; the kid who gets you into scrapes only to dematerialize just when the teacher catches you suspending a bucket of water over the classroom door; the roommate who loses keys, drinks the last of the milk and never washes the dishes. Blair, among Britain's most able and successful leaders, had the misfortune to befriend Bush and become embroiled in the U.S.'s international adventures. For this he has been named the recipient of the U.S.'s two top civilian medals. But those adventures contributed to a steep decline in Blair's popularity, which was a key factor in his premature departure from office in 2007 and they stoke the hostility that informs British press coverage of today's award.
Let's be fair to Blair, since that's a courtesy his disillusioned compatriots rarely extend to him these days: the British pol believed that a close and supportive relationship with Bush would enable him to exercise greater sway over U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere. But the strategy was flawed. "[Blair] always tended to forget the relative size and power of our two countries," says a former British diplomat, who points to Bush's laconic "Yo, Blair" greeting at the 2006 G-8 summit as a symptom of that imbalance. "I was always convinced that when Blair thought that he'd moved Bush to a different place on this, he hadn't done so at all," Lord Levy, Blair's envoy to the Middle East, said in a recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph. "Once Blair was off the phone or Blair was out of Washington, Bush would then listen to others."
"There is no such thing as short-term history," an insouciant President Bush told the White House press corps yesterday. That's a sentiment his pal from across the Atlantic can only hope proves true. A special envoy to the Middle East for the U.S.-Russia-E.U.-U.N. "Quartet" of powers since 2007, Blair has maintained a surprisingly low profile as Israeli forces move into Gaza. Back in Britain, his substantial legacy a more affluent and, by some measures, fairer Britain looks imperiled by the economic downturn. For the moment, a gold medallion, even one given by the lamest of lame ducks and for the most corrosive of reasons, might be the most tangible evidence of his lifetime's achievement.