- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

President Bush, an avowed fitness freak, has always found the workout routine of British Prime Minister Tony Blair a bit effete.

When the two leaders hit the gym together during Group of Eight summits, the president powered through sweat-soaked workouts as the prime minister used light hand weights to stretch.

“Isn’t he cute?” Mr. Bush once said to a White House staffer as he watched Mr. Blair with his tiny weights.

But the two leaders have practiced some muscular diplomacy on the war in Iraq, with the British prime minister doing most of the heavy lifting — a fact Mr. Bush will be forced to face June 27 when Mr. Blair steps down after 10 years in office. The two leaders meet at the White House today for what may be their last face-to-face sit-down before Mr. Blair leaves office.

“Blair was a far more articulate spokesman, not only for the war, but more for the response post-9/11,” said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

In their coupling, politics did indeed create strange bedfellows: Mr. Blair, the articulate Oxford scholar who entered politics at 30 and toiled in a left-of-center party versus an often-marble-mouthed Texan who owned a baseball team and partied until he was 40 before assuming the mantle of the conservative party (although the Texan did attend Yale and Harvard).

Even stranger, Mr. Blair was equally at ease with fellow Third Way advocate Bill Clinton as he was with the my-way-or-the-highway Mr. Bush — and some friends of the two say the British prime minister actually prefers the current president because he speaks his mind freely and keeps his word.

“It was surprising to a lot of people, both because of Blair’s politics and his relationship with Clinton, but it turned out to be a very close personal friendship,” said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House.

“They’re both straight talkers. They genuinely like each other. They recognize in each other courage and a willingness to sacrifice their own political interests for what they see is the good of their countries — and the Western world,” Mr. Black said.

The two, though, saw eye to eye on the threat posed by Islamic radicalism, and have firmly stuck to their black-and-white worldview. Each has exhibited the same strain of moral clarity, finding the war against extremism to be the calling of their generation.

Mr. Blair tied his future to the United States after September 11, saying, “We were with you at the first; we will stay with you to the last.” Even as his rating at home tumbled, he remained steadfast in his support, and left British troops in Iraq long after the antiwar cry in London became piercing.

He was, at times, derided as a “lap dog” and “poodle” of Mr. Bush — who once called him over to his table at a G-8 summit with a casual, “Yo, Blair.” Mr. Bush meant it as a friendly needle; those in Britain found it distastefully patronizing.

With Mr. Blair’s departure next month, Mr. Bush will find himself working with a new British prime minister, expected to be Gordon Brown. Mr. Bush last week expressed optimism that he could work with Mr. Brown, whom he said “understands the consequences of failure” in Iraq.

Currently Britain’s treasury chief, Mr. Brown is less affable and more introverted than Mr. Blair. The Scotsman has vowed a change in direction on Iraq and does not want to become Mr. Bush’s lap dog.

“He doesn’t want to have the ‘poodle’ mantle. He’d rather be a Scottish terrier,” said Reginald Dale, a British senior fellow in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Terriers are loyal, but feisty and independent.”

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