- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Among the questions at last week’s news conference with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the inevitable invitation to Mr. Blair to spill the beans on this own retirement. Exactly when the prime minister will step down in favor of his chosen successor, Chancellor of the Exchequor Gordon Brown, has been one of the most persistent guessing games in international politics for year, a game played coyly by Mr. Blair.

This time, however, Mr. Bush saved his British friend from having to come up with an answer, for Mr. Bush said, “I hope he will be prime minister as long as I am in office.” Said a grinning Mr. Blair, “I don’t think I should say anything after that.”

While Mr. Blair’s eventual departure will obviously affect British domestic politics and the fortunes of the Labor and Tory Parties, it will certainly also have an impact on U.S.-U.K. relations.

The rapport between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair is so obvious, and the American president has relied hugely on the prime minister for moral and military support in Iraq. When it comes to explaining why our troops went in or why they are there today, Mr. Bush’s justifications are often more precisely and elegantly expressed by Mr. Blair.

Mr. Bush even went so far as to say so on Thursday night, praising Mr. Blair for “a great answer” and regretting that his own plain outspokenness has sometimes not helped his own cause, with phrases like wanting Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” and telling the terrorists to “bring it on.” Much of the critical commentary on the summit has focused on the fact that both men admitted mistakes in Iraq. “Coalition of the Erring” was the headline of E.J. Dionne’s column on the press conference in The Washington Post. And yet the media habitually bashes Mr. Bush because of his inability to admit mistakes.

In the British media, some commentary has focused on what Mr. Blair’s foreign policy legacy might have been in the absence of the Iraq war. Wrote historian Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian prior to Mr. Blair’s visit, “Take away Iraq, and I submit that the records of the Blair government in foreign policy would be overwhelmingly positive.” Mr. Blair’s speech at Georgetown University on Friday, in which he stressed the importance of international institutions and a reform of the international system, including the Bretton Woods institutions, will certainly only give ammunition to those who see a great legacy lost in the so-called “morass” of Iraq. Expect more of this kind of analysis as the “legacy” hunt gets underway in Mr. Blair’s last year of office.

The fact of the matter is, however, that it is undoubtedly in Mr. Blair’s steadfast support of the United States in the war against terrorism and of Mr. Bush’s global vision that his true international legacy will be revealed. Mr. Blair has stood by the American president in the tradition of the greatest British prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, in an act of true statesmanship.

Can anyone seriously doubt that without the support of at least one major European power after September 11 (no disrespect to the many smaller countries that showed support), the United States would have cut its European alliance ties for good? While French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder actively opposed the American intervention in Iraq, Mr. Blair stood steadfastly with the United States, and he did so out of conviction, which makes his case all the more powerful when he speaks about it as he did last week here in Washington.

Some commentators, such as Philip Stephens, writing in the Financial Times, believe that even that support is not enough to close the trans-Atlantic rift. “The paradox is that, for all their closeness of the personal relationship with Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair’s view … on [international institutions] such issues describes almost perfectly the difference between European and American approaches … For all that Mr Bush has embraced diplomacy in recent months, his administration still bridles at the constraints of multilateralism. Europeans, including Mr. Blair, want a rules-based system of global governance.”

This difference between Europe and the United States is certainly real enough. Yet, because of Mr. Blair’s political courage, Europeans and Americans still have a chance to discuss those differences and work toward restoring a centuries old bond.

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