Once upon a time the British had a prime minister named Tony
Blair. He was an extraordinary man from the left of politics who
somehow managed to forge a broad and durable consensus. Smart and
personable, he possessed instincts that allowed him to rise above
the political pygmies surrounding him. Unlike previous leaders of
the Labour Party, he had an uncanny ability to win elections. But
then he went to Washington and got chummy with George Bush.
Mr. Blair made British politics boring. For six years, he won
every argument, in the process making his opponents look
incompetent. The only excitement came in watching the opposition
Conservatives struggle to find a leader to challenge him. But after
he joined the Bush-sponsored effort to topple Saddam Hussein,
Blair's dominance began to erode. His decision to go to war caused a
few resignations from his government, the most prominent being Robin
Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, who has since become an
outspoken critic. For the first time in six years, opinion polls
have actually given the Conservatives a slender lead. Suddenly, they
seem a credible opposition, capable of winning the next election
(which must take place before June 2006). Their support has risen
entirely because of disappointment with Blair.
Americans might find this confusing, especially since Blair's
decline coincides precisely with his astonishing rise in popularity
in the US. His overt demonstrations of friendship after 9/11 made
him a hit among Americans. Then, during the deliberations preceding
the war in Iraq, his principled multilateralism appealed to those
worried by Mr. Bush's recklessness. Many found it refreshing to find
a politician who was young, handsome, brave, personable, and
undeniably intelligent. One group of admirers even launched a "Blair
for President" campaign.
Some Americans nevertheless found the Blair phenomenon confusing.
Why, they wondered, had an unashamed British liberal, who was still
good friends with the Clintons, hitched his wagon to the Bush
American confusion was nothing compared to British bewilderment.
For many Britons, it seemed that something funny had happened to
their prime minister on his way to Washington. Margaret Thatcher and
Ronald Reagan had been political soulmates, but Labour prime
ministers were not supposed to be friendly with Republican
presidents. Nor was Labour, traditionally the more pacific party,
supposed to conduct such an aggressive foreign policy.
Despite appearances, there is method to Blair's madness. His
policy can be understood if we appreciate that Iraq is not the
central issue, but rather merely a means by which to achieve wider
Blair is far too ambitious a politician to be satisfied with
running his small country well. He wants to be a statesman, but
therein lies the problem. …