The Magazine

An Alliance of Two

From the November 22, 2004 issue: Bush, Blair, and the problem of Europe.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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"PRIME MINISTER BLAIR wants to talk about Iraq, and we want to talk about Iran. Which is why we allocated two days to his meeting with the president," one high-level Bush official told me in advance of the Anglo-American summit last week. So all was not sweetness and light, probably a plus for Tony Blair, eager to be seen as an equal with his own agenda, rather than as "Bush's poodle," as it has become the habit of lefties in his party, and increasingly wobbly-on-the-war Tories, to dub him. Bush's praise--"a statesman . . . visionary leader . . . unshakable convictions"--will do Blair no good at home.

Still, it would be difficult to imagine two men with views more in sync. They came together with different but related mandates. The British prime minister has a mandate from his parliamentary party to persuade the president to throw his weight behind a renewed push for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. George W. Bush has a mandate from his electorate to win the war on terror. Each got what he wanted.

Blair got the president to agree to spend some of his ample political capital to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the table, the president saying that the death of Yasser Arafat might provide a "new opening for peace," and that the United States will help the Palestinians organize free elections so that they can have a democratic, terror-free state. But no international conference until the Palestinians opt for democracy. Blair can now claim he has gotten a commitment from the president to reengage in the Middle East "peace process." And Bush got Blair to renew his commitment to use Britain's effective military and his own soaring rhetoric to support Iraq's efforts to conduct a reasonably democratic election early in 2005, and to promise to continue to press Iran's mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. (Though the president refused to say what he would do if the Europeans failed to persuade the Iranian regime to abandon the development of nuclear weapons.)

The social democrat prime minister and the compassionate conservative president probably don't agree on how to combat crime or meet the health care needs of their constituents, but when it comes to foreign policy they are almost as one. Blair is convinced that Britain's long-term interests are served by a firm alliance with the United States; Bush believes it is in America's interests to preserve the special relationship.

But that alone is not what is driving this relationship. As Blair made clear in a speech in Chicago in 1999, he believes that it is Britain's obligation to assist in spreading democracy and Western values around the world, and sees that as the ultimate defense against terrorism. He is with America in Iraq not only to maintain the Anglo-American alliance, but out of a conviction that Bush is right to attempt to build a stable, model democracy in a region in which stability and democracy are in short supply. Put these two resolute, conviction politicians together and you get the sort of leadership that has succeeded in attracting other nations to their banner. So close are the views of Tony Blair and George Bush that it is not unreasonable to say that we are all neoconservatives now. Here's Blair on the subject:

When the Americans say we want to extend democracy to these countries, or extend democracy and human rights throughout the Middle East in the Greater Middle East Initiative, people say, well, that is part of the neoconservative agenda. Actually, if you put it in different language, it is a progressive agenda.

At last week's meeting, their 22nd but the first since the June NATO summit in Istanbul, the president and the prime minister might not have had before them decisions as globally significant as those faced by their famous predecessors, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. And no matter how warm their relations--Blair tells me that Bush is one of the most intelligent and trustworthy politicians with whom he has ever dealt, and Bush repeatedly makes clear his admiration for Blair's steely steadfastness and reliability--they are not having anything like the love affair that blossomed whenever Ronald Reagan met Margaret Thatcher. But the Bush-Blair meetings are in the long tradition of the get-togethers of their famous predecessors: These face-to-face meetings provide the glue that holds the relationship together--regular video conferences aren't quite the same thing.