- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

President Bush yesterday said the fight against radical Islam demands “courage,” as Tony Blair, standing in the White House Rose Garden for his final time as British prime minister, said he has “never doubted” tying his fate to the vagaries of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In an occasionally nostalgic press conference that featured each leader praising the other for his steadfast resolve, Mr. Blair said that even though his term in office is being cut short by the unpopular war, he still would choose to commit British forces to the worldwide fight against terrorism.

“You can debate about the mistakes and the issues and you can debate about Iraq, whether we should have done this or we should have done that,” said the normally cool Mr. Blair, bristling at a question from a British reporter.

“I would take the same position of alliance with America again. … I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision,” he said.

The president, shoulder to shoulder with the prime minister, rebuked a precocious British reporter who asked whether Mr. Blair should leave office even before his scheduled departure date of June 27, now that his successor, treasury chief Gordon Brown, has been selected.

“You know, it’s interesting, like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren’t you?” Mr. Bush said. “There’s a lot of blowhards in the political process, you know, a lot of hot-air artists, people who have got something fancy to say. Tony Blair is somebody who actually follows through with his convictions, and therefore, is admired in the international community.”

Mr. Blair returned the praise, calling Mr. Bush “a strong leader at a time when the world needs strong leadership.”

While both leaders were at times defensive about their decisions to take their nations to war, each offered an assertive case for military action in Iraq and continuing the global war against terrorism.

“The forces that we are fighting in Iraq — al Qaeda on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements on the other — are the same forces we’re fighting everywhere,” Mr. Blair said.

The prime minister, the war’s most articulate spokesman, defended his decision to join forces with the United States to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Far broader, he said, the United States and Britain began a defense of the Western world from the forces of Islamic radicals — even at the expense of his job, which he is leaving at least a year early because of plummeting support at home.

“There is a battle that we are fighting around the world today. And let’s at least accept, also, that it’s a battle about the type of values that govern the world in the early 21st century. You don’t win those battles by being a fair-weather friend to your ally, you don’t win those battles by being hesitant or withdrawing support for each other when the going gets tough.”

Mr. Bush used the press conference to remind Americans that “there’s still an enemy that would like to attack us.”

“No matter how calm it may seem here in America, an enemy lurks, and they would like to strike. They would like to do harm to the American people because they have an agenda. They want to impose an ideology; they want us to retreat from the world; they want to find safe haven,” he said.

The legacies of the two leaders were woven together in March 2003 when they acted against what they called a grave threat. Although Saddam possessed a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction during inspections in the late 1990s, none has been found since the war began. The two leaders have fought public opinion as violence in Iraq has escalated.

“It’s not just a decision for me and him; it’s a decision for everybody who’s engaged in politics,” Mr. Blair said. “Sometimes in politics there are all sorts of issues where you’ve got to negotiate and compromise, but when it comes to the fundamental questions that affect our security and the future of the world, you should do what is right.

“I have tried to do that. And I believe that is what he has done, as well. … I do not regret that.”

Before the press conference, Mr. Bush took Mr. Blair to the White House Situation Room, where the two participated in a secure video conference with U.S. and British officials in Baghdad for an update on security, economic and political issues. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and their British counterparts led the briefing.

Mr. Blair predicted that Britain “will remain a staunch and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere” under the leadership of Mr. Brown, who has vowed not to immediately withdraw British troops from Iraq.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Brown a “good fellow” and said, “I hope to help him in office the way Tony Blair helped me.”

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