Bush's Poodle?

Tony Blair's face says it all. It is etched with ruts and gullies where once there were laughter lines and humane creases. His cheeks have fallen in. The mental, political and emotional traumas of the last six months have left their indelible mark. He is the dedicated multilateral internationalist who has hitched his star to the least multilateral U.S. administration in modern times. He is the pro-European who has triggered the profoundest split in the European Union. He is the third-way progressive whose closest foreign ally despises third-way progressives. He has divided his party and the British liberal left over the lack of legitimacy of war in Iraq, and he shares with George W. Bush all the problems of reconstruction in Iraq but holds negligible leverage. What does Tony Blair know that the rest of us do not?

British interests have been damaged. The United Kingdom shares with the United States all the ambiguities of whether we are liberator or invader in Iraq but none of the overwhelming military preeminence that permits the United States a degree of indifference to Arab protest. Britain can urge that a road map to peace in the Middle East be published, but the power axis lies between Republican Washington and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. British commercial, financial, cultural and oil interests in both the Arab world and beyond lie in Britain having a distinct European position; instead, it is seen as the 51st state, but without any influence on Washington that being a 51st state would confer. The British capacity to be taken seriously by other members of the European Union as a believer in European integration has been set back, possibly irretrievably. Forget neoconservative stories about new and "old Europe." Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (perhaps due to corruption charges) and Jose María Aznar in Spain are losing poll approval ratings. There is a European "street," and it is suspicious -- like liberal America -- of the kind of world order that Bush wants to build. Future Italian and Spanish governments will strike a similar stance to France and Germany. British public opinion is also suspicious, especially on the left. Yet Blair carries on.

Britain has a massive interest in globalization continuing apace. But that globalization has to be legitimate, or countries will throw barriers in its way. Legitimacy demands an acceptance that the adverse processes of globalization -- epidemics such as SARS, environmental despoliation, financial instability, trade disputes, terrorism, infringements of human rights -- are responded to within a multilateral system of international governance. Yet Blair has made himself the ally of a government and a philosophy that takes the opposite view: Globalization must be on terms sanctioned by neoconservative Washington. But the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization alike, along with a host of other institutions, live by the multilateral philosophy that Bush scorns.

Blair argues that he has achieved more than critics admit. If his alliance with Bush gave the president cover for his war and caused Democrats immediate problems, it now offers Democrats an important lifeline. He has created a "Blair Democrat" position that allows them to argue that they, too, were for removing a despicable dictator and ready to use force, but that like Blair, they want to internationalize the reconstruction and building of democracy in Iraq. Moreover, like Blair, they are idealistic about mankind cooperating to build a better world, but within a framework of international legitimacy.

One of the problems in arguing with neoconservatives is that they have taken the high idealistic ground. They want freedom for Iraqis, democracy in the Middle East, an Islamic enlightenment. They insist that universal human rights are also the prerogative of Muslims, shedding the residual racism that dogs the liberal position with all its (even if well-founded) concern that contemporary Islam is an impossibly hostile climate in which to foster democracy and liberal capitalism. If liberals counter the neocons with doubts about whether Muslims are ready for democracy and doggedly defend uninspiring international institutions, they have lost the argument. There has to be an international and multilateral idealism to counter the one held by conservatives. That Blair fought the war using a very different rhetoric than Bush has been important for the liberal cause; indeed, Blair would argue that he helped to keep the flame of liberal internationalism alive in the United States.

Equally, Bush has debts to Blair, and the president can't be comfortable that he owes them to a foreign leader who freely acknowledges taking counsel from Bill Clinton throughout the Iraq War. Clinton saw the importance of having a Blair Democrat position; he also saw that Bush would have to make concessions to his British ally, and that this would provide the Democrats with crucial political cover. In short, Blair has become, if not a kingmaker in American politics, a very helpful source of political capital -- and it is up to the Democrats to use it.

The trouble is that Bush and the neocons are wise to this risk. While they are careful to praise Blair in public, in private they calculate that he must not be allowed to derail their project. In my new book, A Declaration of Interdependence, I argue that too few people inside and outside America comprehend the ambition of the American conservative project and its ideological hostility -- both internally to any conception of an American social contract undergirding social mobility and opportunity and externally to any constraint on the exercise of preemptive autonomous American power. Moreover, the conservative coalition is deeply rooted and very powerful. It is a dangerous challenge both to the well-being of most ordinary American citizens at home and to the fragile processes that legitimize globalization abroad. If Blair and Clinton think they have held back the conservative advance, they can think again.

Hence Blair has seen very little reciprocity in recognition of the enormous risks he has run. Iraqi reconstruction, despite some warm words about a "vital role" for the United Nations, remains firmly in American hands. The attitude of potential key helpers is increasingly, "You broke it, you fix it." Without an international peacekeeping force, U.S. and British forces are going to have to do the job. And if Iraqi secular government and the rule of impartial law are to have any chance of flourishing in a society where primitive religious fundamentalism is a permanent threat, Britain and America are in for a long haul. The world is a vastly better place without Saddam Hussein. But it would have been smarter -- even if it would have been slower -- to have gotten rid of him via the multilateral route.

Blair saw the benefits of this approach very clearly before the war began, hence his fight for a second UN resolution. Every Iraqi civilian shot by an America marine makes it more likely that the fedayeen will hit back with ambushes and suicide attacks, making it more likely still that jumpy American soldiers will shoot back to kill. The situation in Iraq could thus quickly become very unstable. It would have been infinitely better had the invasion been under the aegis of international law with an international peacekeeping force assembled to begin impartially and immediately keeping the peace. But Blair has no leverage. He is left making the best of a bad job, hoping that sooner rather than later weapons of mass destruction will be found that unblock the sanctions and allow the operation to be internationalized. Even then it's not clear that Washington would play ball.

High-ranking voices in both the Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr&oumlder governments recognize that France and Germany handled the crisis badly. Both countries made it very difficult for the European Union to arrive at a common position that would have strengthened those voices in America that wanted the intervention multilateralized. Europe should have said it was ready to act, sent troops to the Persian Gulf but only been ready to invade once the weapons-inspection process was exhausted.

The worst of it is that what Blair wants is right. The European Union and the United States should not be competing power blocks; they have to acknowledge their interdependence and shared interest. The United States should not be shouldering the burden of democratizing and reconstructing Iraq alone, not least because it radically reduces the chances of long-run success. The European Union should recognize that the emergence of radical Islamic terrorism has changed the rules of the game. But to reach that outcome requires more bravery from Democratic politicians in the United States -- and more realism from France and Germany.

It also requires smarter politics from Blair. American neoconservatives understand the language of power. Blair needs to say "no" to their ambitions and offer a multilateral alternative that rallies Britain's EU partners to that option and opens up more opportunities for American liberals. He has to work harder at bringing Chirac and Schröder onside, and at standing up to Bush. There would then be a concrete policy alternative that Democrats could argue for. The difficulty is that third-way politicians fight their battles through serpentine triangulation rather than confronting the enemy head-on. Blair and Britain are paying a heavy price for this approach and the miscalculation over what neoconservative America wants. So is the American liberal tradition.

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