Tony Blair's Big Gamble

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The whole world really wants to believe in America," said Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia and now president of the International Crisis Group, who was in Davos last week. But as the planet's business and political elite enjoyed fondue and spaetzle, the miserable truth became apparent: most of the world doesn't believe the Administration of George W. Bush has yet made a case for war in Iraq. The talk in Davos was all of America-the-arrogant, America-the-bully, America-the-cowboy. All of which places in sharp focus the character and policies of one man who manifestly does believe in America and its President and who is about to face the biggest test of his career: Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair will visit Camp David this weekend as the most significant political leader offering Bush unstinting support. In the past two weeks, he has said again, in language stronger than ever, that although he would prefer clear U.N. backing for a war in Iraq — and he will make that point at Camp David — Britain's troops will fight alongside their American counterparts if Washington judges that Saddam Hussein is not making a good-faith effort to disarm Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Britons are used to his trimming and spinning on domestic issues; but as a senior British official said admiringly, on Iraq he has never wavered. "He is convinced," said another official, "that if we don't tackle weapons of mass destruction now, it is only a matter of time before they fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. If George Bush wasn't pressing for action on this, Blair would be pressing George Bush on it."

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Blair's commitment to Bush is a huge gamble twice over. He is risking his position as the dominant figure in British political life and placing in jeopardy one of his long-term goals — that Britain should be at the heart of an attempt to make the European Union a dependable, strategic global partner for the U.S. Domestically, the threat comes not from the pitiful opposition Conservative Party but from the fact that many of his own Labour Party members are implacably opposed to a war without U.N. sanction — and even with it would support one only reluctantly. Historically, British Prime Ministers — think Margaret Thatcher — are just as likely to be tossed from office for splitting their parties as they are for losing elections. Blair has never been much loved by the party faithful; if a war were to go badly, his position would become untenable. As to Europe, though Blair (and Bush) have allies there, among them the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the British leader has been blindsided by the revival of the Franco-German alliance, manifested last week by the joint declaration of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of their opposition to military action. If Britain is yoked to the U.S. in an unpopular, messy war, it is France and Germany — not Britain — that will shape the future of the E.U.

Why take the risks? Cynically — and if Blair did not have an ounce of cynicism in his body, he would be the first politician of whom that was true — the Prime Minister must reason that what Washington wants, Washington usually gets. Better to stay on the good side of a likely victor than carp from the sidelines. (For this reason, I hereby fearlessly predict that if there is a war in Iraq, French troops will take part.) But there are two other factors at play. First, Blair sincerely believes, as he told British diplomats earlier this month, that it is simply wrong for rich nations to expect the U.S. to do all the dirty work in the world. Such a policy is not just indulgent; it risks sacrificing any chance of influencing postconflict arrangements. Second, and perhaps most important of all, Blair has been motivated since he was a student by a deeply held set of moral — indeed religious — beliefs that good should triumph over evil and that the forces of righteousness have an obligation to do what they can to improve the world. That was just as evident in the Kosovo crisis of 1999, when Blair took the lead in advocating military action. In this respect he is very peculiar among today's Europeans, most of whom (with their political leaders) inhabit a postreligious world of moral relativities. Blair's "preachiness" sticks in the gullet of even many Britons who otherwise admire him. As his aides assert, however, Blair's religious beliefs make him a natural interlocutor for an American President for whom "moral clarity" is the lodestone of policy.

In the messy world of international politics, a set of clear principles, alas, is not a guarantee of sound policy. But as we all instinctively know, they are just what you need in a friend — or an ally. And that is why, as the President choppers in to Camp David this week, Bush could do worse than reflect that he is a very lucky man.