Marching as to war

May 13, 2007

Americans by and large cottoned to Tony Blair because he speaks in complete sentences and he's not afraid to make showy displays of his sincerity. He acts as though he knows where he's going, and that moreover he's thought it all through. The British, by contrast, wearied of him, and after 10 years as prime minister he's now putting down the power that he so assiduously put to use.

Mr. Blair is an ends-justify-the-means sort of person - which in principle would make him a man to be extremely wary of. But the ends he pursued, particularly in the early going, were so clearly worthwhile that his country afforded him a great deal of latitude. Most of them had to do with much-needed domestic reform, but he played a crucial role in engaging President Bill Clinton in the Kosovo crisis, sent troops to establish order in Sierra Leone, spoke out on global warming, and succeeded just this past week in ushering in a new and startling power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.

The origin of his undoing is clear, in hindsight. It was in late November 2000, in the chads of Palm Beach County, Fla. Had George W. Bush not been declared the winner of the presidential election, Mr. Blair would not have had the chance to make the disastrous decision to commit British policy to the conservative Bush agenda, and especially to the pursuit of sweeping change in the Middle East. Mr. Blair made some of the most heartfelt and egregiously erroneous arguments in favor of going to war in Iraq. He really did believe that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would be a blessing for the Iraqi people - but he really did say that the Hussein regime could launch weapons of mass destruction on 45 minutes' notice.

Would the war still have happened without him? Probably so, but it might have given more Americans just a little pause to realize that no other country of any importance was willing to go along. A man of Mr. Blair's eloquence and deep religious conviction might even have had some influence on Mr. Bush himself - perhaps.

But the world will never know. When he was told at a 2002 meeting at No. 10 Downing Street that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" on Iraq by the White House, Mr. Blair's response was to make sure no daylight opened up between London and Washington. He was in pursuit of an end that in his mind justified the means - and it's not only the British people who are paying the price for that today.

Britain is more prosperous than ever, its society less class-ridden, its public services on the mend. Much of the credit belongs to Mr. Blair. But power is an uncertain thing, and he wasn't careful with it; the British people had faith in him, and then he let it get away.

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