ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of spending a great deal of time in London is the opportunity to meet with Britain's prime minister from time-to-time, and to watch him in action through the eyes of the British media. Americans who have witnessed his performances in the press conferences that inevitably follow his visits to Washington and Crawford almost uniformly admire his eloquence and passion. But few appreciate the risks he is taking to support America's efforts to create a pacific, democratic and prosperous Iraq in the place of Saddam Hussein's hell-on-the-Euphrates.
President Bush does. Bob Woodward reports that the president feared that if Blair were to send troops to Iraq, his government would fall. So he offered his friend the opportunity of holding our coat rather than joining our assault. Blair declined the quite respectable role of "peacekeeper," and stood with us, bringing the fury of large segments of his own party and, a few weeks ago just as Parliament was rising for its summer recess, the leader of the Tories down on his head.
It is no secret that our president is wildly unpopular among Britain's chattering classes, as distinct from its far wiser cab drivers and John, my haircutter. With the notable exception of a few newspapers, the press and the BBC pour out anti-American vitriol that often makes Al Jazeera seem a paragon of objective reporting. The situation is so bad that the joke at No. 10 Downing Street--"joke," as in "you will laugh so hard that you will cry"--is that George W. Bush is less popular in certain British circles than Osama bin Laden.
To understand the depths of this Bush-hating anti-Americanism, let's get up close and personal, as I am told they say in Crawford. Which brings me to a dinner party my wife, Cita, and I attended in a fashionable London town house. The usual assortment of media folk, City (financial) types, and professionals, with the odd (very) member of Parliament. It was a group put together by a very gracious hostess and her very conservative husband. Sounds like fun. But, at least for pro-Bush, anti-Saddam Americans, it was the sort of evening that makes one long for a good dose of Fox News, followed by readings from the works of Donald Rumsfeld.
THE WAR ON TERROR, announces one guest, could have been avoided if the Americans hadn't invaded Iraq. But the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon--not to mention various embassy bombings and the assault on the Cole--preceded the invasion of Iraq, I noted, in a gentle effort to help this guest reorganize her calendar of events. Ah, but original sin, the event that preceded all of the ones I cited, is the Jews' beastly treatment of the Arabs.
We are gluttons for punishment, not to mention for wonderful puddings of the sort being set before us. So we decided that the guestly thing to do was to stifle our desire to leave, running the risk that continuing the discussion might result in the violent response many Brits assume comes naturally to gun-totin', SUV-drivin', Americans. (They couldn't work their God-fearing epithet into that litany, as it might have impelled us to turn the other cheek, which they for some strange reason don't expect of God-fearing Americans.)
Besides, rational argument will conquer all, I was brought up to believe. So I gently inquired, "What would you have done after September 11 if you were president of the United States?" The answer did more than even a steady diet of BBC broadcasts can do to make us realize just what Tony Blair is up against: "I would have been nicer to the Arabs, and made the Jews be nicer to the Arabs."
Mind you: this is not Nancy Astor explaining the virtues of Adolph Hitler to her anti-Semitic friends in the run-up to World War II. This is Great Britain, circa 2004. And so to bed, after absolving our host and hostess of all blame for the views of their guests.
BUT NOT TO SLEEP, before reflecting on the situation that Blair faces. This is a prime minister who is up to his, er, hips in alligators. The public sector unions are threatening to strike unless granted inflationary wage increases; the transport system is in disarray for reasons that antedate his move into No. 10; crime is on the rise; one former minister is accusing him of lying about weapons of mass destruction and another is calling for negotiations with bin Laden (that worked in Ireland, didn't it?); and his left is so furious over his decision to support Bush in Iraq that it would gladly risk losing his vote-getting ability if they could force him to take up permanent residence in Crawford, Texas.
And now he faces a brawl over his quite crazy decision to sign on to a new European constitution that cedes great swaths of British sovereignty to a swollen bureaucracy that has brought double-digit unemployment to France and Germany, and counts Spain's appeaser government as a star recruit to its Franco-German axis.
Well, no one is perfect. But from an American point of view, so long as he can retain Britain's right to make its own decisions about the use of its armed forces--not a certainty if the new constitution is adopted--he is close. This is due in part to Blair's long-run view that Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher had it right when they insisted that the Anglo-American alliance is the cornerstone of British security, and of the ability of the West to preserve its values from assaults by fascists, communists, and, now, Islamic fanatics. Bush may not be popular in Britain, but neither was Ronald Reagan. And all that the British and Americans accomplished the last time a tough British prime minister and an unpopular American president decided to get together to defend the West was to win the Cold War.
BUT YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE in Britain too long to realize that Blair is taking a risk that Thatcher didn't. Reagan was unpopular, but viewed as dangerous because of a low IQ, not because of an inherent tendency towards belligerence. Dumb beats belligerent in the international popularity sweepstakes. Hollywood trumps Texas. Despite its recent penchant for violence, Hollywood is still associated with wonderful movies, Fred Astaire dancing down curved stairways, Judy Garland singing on a trolley, and (cheers in Europe) liberated attitudes towards sex. No disabling moral certainties.
Texas, on the other hand, is all guns, with butter only for rich oil barons; God-in-politics; the death penalty; evil-doers and good guys; and, in the case of the president, what historian T. R. Fehrenbach calls "a certain Texan belligerence." Those are heavy burdens for Blair to bear, which he does because unseating Saddam was "the right thing" to do if what he sees as this deadly serious war on terror is to be won.
As Blair wryly says when told how popular he is with most Americans, "Unfortunately, they don't vote here." But we do go to dinner parties here, and do our best to make his case--before fleeing lest the crockery fly.
Irwin M. Stelzer is director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, a columnist for the Sunday Times (London), a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.