The Magazine

Tony the Lionhearted

Blair discovers it's not easy being pro-American in Europe.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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London

IF A DILEMMA HAD more than two horns, Tony Blair would be impaled on all of them. He has to please his electorate, but only 15 percent agree with him that if a war is necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein, war it will be (with or without a new U.N. resolution). He has to please his European allies, but they are dead set against aligning themselves with America. He has to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on foreign affairs, although voters are calling for him to pay more attention to domestic matters. He has to retain his grip on his Labour party, but increasing numbers of its members favor peace at almost any price.

All of which will make this week's meeting with President Bush--a "council of war," as the British press puts it--of crucial importance to Blair's political standing at home, and to his ability to continue to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America, as he puts it, in the war on terror.

There can be no mistaking the prime minister's determination to stand with us. In the face of mounting anti-Americanism at home, he called more than 100 of his ambassadors and high commissioners to London to tell them, "We are the ally of the U.S. not because they are powerful, but because we share their values." Last week, in what can only be described as a bravura, two-and-a-half hour appearance before 28 chairmen of parliamentary committees, he added, "I don't think it is actually particularly in the British character to think--well, let's go to the back of the line and hide away." Great stuff; almost Churchillian.

Blair knows enough history to remember Churchill's fate--turned out of office less than three months after victory in the European phase of World War II. And that of Anthony Eden, who was turned out of No. 10 by his own party after mounting an unsuccessful war against another Middle Eastern despot, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, in an attempt to retake the Suez Canal. He knows, too, that his parliamentary party includes a substantial number ofAmerica-haters.

So include Blair's profile among those whose courage deserves our admiration. Robust pro-Americanism just isn't the route to popularity with Britain's chattering and political classes these days. Neither is a willingness to send troops into harm's way in support of an American attack on Iraq. Blair has campaigned to rally support for his position, causing the left-wing Guardian to snort, "Persuading people of the need for war is almost his full-time job. He is like John Wesley, touring the land, speaking to whomever will harken. . . . But unlike a preacher, he hears few 'Hosannas!'"

True enough. While 85 percent of Brits oppose the use of force unless there is a further U.N. resolution, Dr. Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, probably won't be persuaded even by a new resolution: He signed a declaration calling war against Iraq "illegal and immoral." And 69 percent of local Labour party chairmen say they expect members to leave the party if Britain goes to war.

There is worse. Leaders of the opposition Tories, a party that until now could be counted on to support Blair's backing of America, tell me that their backbenchers are restless, and want to distance themselves from the prime minister's position on Iraq. Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, who served as foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher, has added his name to the "voices against war." Hurd lends Tory respectability to Labour peaceniks.

To the resistance from the clergy and within his own party, and to waning support from the Tories, add the prime minister's problems with his European friends. It is important to keep in mind that one of Blair's greatest ambitions is to be "at the heart of Europe." He believes that by its standoffishness, Britain has squandered opportunities to influence the direction of the European Union. He is firmly convinced that his ability to win a place in history as a great prime minister depends on ending the British attitude best summarized in that old joke, "Fog in channel; continent cut off."

So it causes this prime minister great pain that his support for America has created a rift not only with many in his party and with the clergy (Blair is deeply religious), but with his European colleagues. Just last week, the French warned him that they might veto any Anglo-American-inspired resolution that held Saddam to be in material breach of U.N. resolutions. Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, called military action a "dead end" and told his British counterpart, Jack Straw, that the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq means Saddam's weapons programs are "largely blocked or even frozen."