WHEN TONY BLAIR WENT ON TELEVISION within hours of the September 11 terrorist attacks to declare that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States, the British prime minister entered a moment of total personal and political clarity--an epiphany. He would give George W. Bush and the war on terrorism unflinching support and use his new political leverage with the Americans both to keep the war from spreading and to insist that serious reconstruction must be part of the eventual peace.
Since September 11, Blair has thrown himself into the task of building and maintaining a sustainable global coalition and supporting the kind of social reconstruction that he recognizes must follow any military success. When President Bush spoke to Congress, Blair was there. In the last weeks, he has also met with President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, Yasir Arafat, and many others. His cabinet colleagues have journeyed across the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. When U.S. missiles were fired on the first night of the strikes against Afghanistan, British submarines joined in.
At home, Blair's solidarity with the U.S. response to September 11 has earned him an approval rating in excess of 70 percent--good, though not Blair's best since his election in 1997. But the war has also brought charges that he is acting as Bush's secretary of state and folding Britain's interests too tightly and non-negotiably within the framework of U.S. intent. One British commentator observed acidly that Bush was behaving like a prime minister and Blair like a president. Blair's actions have provoked Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, to complain that he is ignoring Europe.
More than Bush, Blair faces a peace movement at home. Its first London rally, organized in mid-October by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, attracted about 20,000 people and allowed doubters among Britain's two-million-strong Muslim population to make common cause with an old left, which could have between 50 and 100 supporters on the Labour benches in Parliament. But open parliamentary opposition to British involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom has been rare. Only Plaid Cymru, the party of Welsh nationalism, is explicitly at war with the war.
The London newspapers, meanwhile, have supported the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph, the leading Conservative title, has done so with such enthusiasm that it has guaranteed Blair's ability to inflict huge collateral damage upon the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who, since September 11, has become even more invisible than he seemed during his dull campaign for office.
Whatever else motivates Tony Blair, then, his post-September 11 stance can also be seen as good domestic politics. He struck the right instinctive note with the public, marginalized his political opponents, and took on his preferred role of strong leader propelled by urgent moral concern.
BLAIR'S DEEPER REASONING ABOUT INTERNATIONAL affairs--and so the context for his support of the present military engagement--can be best read in two speeches. The first was delivered to the Economic Club of Chicago on April 22, 1999, when NATO was in the middle of its military action aimed at removing Slobodan Milosevic's Serb army and police from the disputed territory of Kosovo. The second was Blair's speech to his own Labour Party conference 20 days after the atrocities in New York and Washington.
The Chicago speech, like many of Blair's more important statements, was very much his own work; it expounded for the first time his "doctrine of the international community" as it is now styled on the Downing Street Web site. Polished and Churchillian it was not. It's not hard to imagine the Chicago banker tapping his watch as the prime minister laboriously set out his six-point plan for reforming international institutions, followed by his five-point checklist for judging the appropriateness of international intervention in conflicts. …