- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Congress yesterday that history is calling America to lead the world, militarily and otherwise, in the fight to stop terrorism and spread liberty.

“I know it’s hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country … there’s a guy getting on with his life perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me, and why us, and why America?’” Mr. Blair said in his address, the fourth such speech by a British prime minister to Congress.

“And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do,” he said.

In the speech to a joint meeting of Congress, Mr. Blair made a strong defense of the war against Iraq and said that whatever conclusions are reached about intelligence, action against Saddam Hussein had been the only option.

“Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together? Let us say one thing: If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive,” he said.

“But if our critics are wrong, if we are right, as I believe with every fiber of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership,” he said.

Mr. Blair entered the U.S. House chamber to a standing ovation by lawmakers, senior Bush administration officials and U.S. military leaders gathered for the occasion — which resembled a State of the Union address or other major speech by a U.S. president.

The prime minister thanked the chamber for the welcome, joking, “that’s more than I deserve, and it’s more than I’m used to, quite frankly,” a reference to his domestic and intra-party battles over his support for the U.S.-led war against Saddam.

In his 40-minute speech, he focused on both nations’ international mission after the fall of Saddam. He laid out a broad vision for a new international order, dismissing the notion that a counterweight is needed to balance U.S. power.

“Such a theory may have made sense in 19th-century Europe. It was perforce the position in the Cold War. Today, it is an anachronism, to be discarded like traditional theories of security,” he said. “It is dangerous, because it is not rivalry but partnership we need, a common will and a shared purpose in the face of a common threat.”

Still, he asked American leaders to try to build coalitions by convincing the world of the cause, rather than threatening to go it alone.

“It is not the coalition that determines the mission, but the mission the coalition. But let us start preferring a coalition and acting alone if we have to, not the other way round,” he said. “True, winning wars is not easier that way, but winning the peace is. And we have to win both.”

Mr. Blair extended his challenge to the United Nations, making a general call for reform of the Security Council and a specific call for a “new international regime on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

“And we need to say clearly to United Nations members: If you engage in the systematic and gross abuse of human rights in defiance of the U.N. Charter, you cannot expect to enjoy the same privileges as those that conform to it,” he said.

Speaking from notes rather than an electronic cuing device, the leader of the majority Labor Party in the British House of Commons often delighted the nearly full chamber, at one point saying he had been shown the spot where the British had burned the congressional library in 1814.

“I know this is kind of late, but: Sorry,” he said.

Winston Churchill had thrice addressed a joint session of Congress, the first time in December 1941 after the United States joined World War II. Clement R. Attlee and Margaret Thatcher also had addressed joint sessions.

Earlier this year Congress voted to award Mr. Blair the Congressional Gold Medal, making him the second British prime minister, after Mr. Churchill, to be bestowed the honor. He will receive the medal later this year.

Even as he was being welcomed in Washington, he faced strong criticism back home concerning intelligence leading to the war in Iraq.

But Republican leaders have showered Mr. Blair — whose Labor Party would be much closer to the Democratic Party here — with praise this week.

“It seems like they grow courage over there in England like they grow grass,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

But some Democrats were less welcoming, and chose to remain seated as Mr. Blair thanked Mr. Bush for his leadership and defended the action in Iraq.

However, Mr. Blair, leaving the chamber, worked the center aisle as comfortably as a popular second-term president during a State of the Union address, shaking hands on all sides as members of both parties tried to push closer to congratulate him.

Several lawmakers said it had been one of the best speeches, and one of the warmest receptions, they had ever seen.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said Mr. Blair “taught us more about ourselves,” and that the speech ought to be included in U.S. history textbooks.

Mr. Blair called for Arab nations to recognize Israel’s right to exist and for an end to anti-Semitic propaganda, even as he pushed for “an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state side by side with the state of Israel.”

“What the president is doing in the Middle East is tough, but right,” he said.

Mr. Blair also endorsed stronger environmental protection standards.

“Frankly, we need to go beyond even Kyoto. And science and technology is the way,” he said. “Climate change, deforestation, the voracious drain on natural resources cannot be ignored. Unchecked, these forces will hinder the economic development of the most vulnerable nations first, and, ultimately, all nations.” The United States has signed but not ratified the Kyoto treaty, and no administration has submitted it for Senate approval.

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