Foreign Currency

It's America's loss that British Prime Minister Tony Blair happened to be born on the other side of the ocean. As he made clear in a truly remarkable speech before Congress last Thursday, Blair understands far better than any contemporary American politician the appropriate role of U.S. power in the world. Not only would Blair have a real shot at defeating George W. Bush if he could run as an American in 2004, he would also make a far better president. But because a Blair presidency isn't possible, perhaps we can settle for the next best thing: a Democratic candidate who takes up the mantle of Blair's approach to world affairs and uses it to propel himself to the White House.

If the Democratic presidential candidates weren't paying attention last Thursday, they missed a powerful lesson in both the shortcomings of their own foreign policies and in how best to attack the Bush administration's handling of international affairs. To date, the national-security platforms of the top Democratic contenders have run the gamut from muddled critiques of Bush's hawkish conduct (John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman) to straightforward rejection of American power (Howard Dean). What these strategies fail to take into account is that Americans remain genuinely concerned about their country's safety. Voters intuitively understand that September 11 was a signal of our vulnerability; they want a president with a long-term plan for guaranteeing our country's security in the world. No Democrat has even hinted at a foreign-policy platform that would address this concern. Few Americans believed during the 1980s that Star Wars alone would keep us safe from the Soviet Union; how many voters in 2004 will really believe that beefing up homeland-security funding -- the current catch-all of Democratic anti-terrorism policy -- is a substitute for a real strategy of defeating terrorism before it reaches our shores?

Bush and his advisers are well aware that Americans continue to fear terrorism. But they have cynically used this fear only to beget more fear. Think about Bush's two primary justifications -- the Iraq-al-Qaeda link and the weapons of mass destruction claim -- for invading Iraq. One looked dubious from the start; the other is looking more so by the day. Both justifications for the war were designed to take the very rational, reasonable fears of average Americans and turn them into less rational, more unreasonable fears -- the kind that could justify war. Bush seems to have bet that the Democrats would have no answer for his strategy of fear. And so far, he is being proven right. While Bush is telling Americans to indulge and incubate their fears, the Democratic candidates -- in offering little strategic vision for combating terrorism -- are implicitly telling Americans that their fears are illegitimate, even silly. And no one wants to be told that.

Enter Tony Blair. In his address to Congress last week, Blair told Americans to take their very concrete fears and turn them to hope. He told them that their desire to secure their own country complements -- indeed demands -- an effort to remake the world in a more humane, more democratic mold. Blair's message was one of determined optimism: To defeat the threat of terrorism once and for all, he said, Americans must use both the strength of their military and the power of their ideas to build a better world. "The spread of freedom is the best security for the free," he said in the speech's most powerful line. "It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack." (The line raised the question of whether Blair, or his speechwriter, has been reading Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which ends with the admonition that "freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others.")

Blair's brand of idealism stands in stark contrast to what can only be described as the growing surliness of Bush's approach to world affairs. Bush has flirted with foreign-policy idealism during the last two years, but since the start of the reconstruction of Iraq, he has seemed increasingly satisfied to settle, both in rhetoric and policy, for a cheap brand of realism rather than a broad commitment to midwifing democracy in the Middle East. Bush's most memorable pronouncement about postwar Iraq to date has been his goading of fedayeen to attack U.S. soldiers. Blair, by contrast, said on Thursday, "We promised Iraq democratic government; we will deliver it. We promised them the chance to use their oil wealth to build prosperity for all their citizens, not a corrupt elite, and we will do so. We will stay with these people so in need of our help until the job is done."

If a Democrat were smart enough to adopt the Blair formula as his own, he could create a number of advantages for himself in the presidential race. First and foremost, he would bring a credibly tough foreign policy to the 2004 campaign. After all, Blair favored the Iraq War, and his world view would countenance the use of force to protect American interests, both narrowly and broadly defined. He could also portray himself as someone who would reclaim the good standing of the United States in the eyes of the international community. As Blair implied in his speech on Thursday, the United States can serve as a forceful international leader without being a global bully. Most importantly, he could avoid falling into a rejectionist critique of Bush's foreign policy, which would inevitably sound to voters like a doubting of U.S. resolve. Optimism is one of the key factors that wins presidential campaigns, and Blair's conception of American power is far more optimistic than Bush's. It is also, ironically, more American than Bush's foreign policy, because it directly invokes the tendency in U.S. history to see our own national battles for safety as inextricably bound up in the world's battle for liberty.

Adopting Blair's formula wouldn't just be a matter of adopting his policies; it would also be a matter of adopting his style. An optimistic plan for reinventing the world calls for inspiring rhetoric, and Blair did not shrink from the occasion last week. Consider this passage from the latter part of his speech:

As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but in fact, it is transient. The question is, what do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty. That is what this struggle against terrorist groups or states is about. We're not fighting for domination. We're not fighting for an American world, though we want a world in which America is at ease. We're not fighting for Christianity, but against religious fanaticism of all kinds. And this is not a war of civilizations, because each civilization has a unique capacity to enrich the stock of human heritage. We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind -- black or white; Christian or not; left, right or merely indifferent -- to be free -- free to raise a family in love and hope; free to earn a living and be rewarded by your own efforts; free not to bend your knee to any man in fear; free to be you, so long as being you does not impair the freedom of others.

That's what we're fighting for, and it's a battle worth fighting. And I know it's hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country -- out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to but always wanted to go -- I know out there, there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me, and why us, and why America?" And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.

I don't think it is overestimating the appetite of average Americans for big ideas to say that a majority would vote for a candidate who speaks like Blair rather than one whose primary goal with regard to terrorists is to "smoke 'em out." Several months ago, on The Washington Post's op-ed page, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute introduced the idea of Blair as a model for progressive presidential candidates, and the polls suggest this strategy could work. In a Time/CNN poll conducted on March 27 -- in the middle of the Iraq War, at a time when one would expect citizens to feel the greatest loyalty to their own commander in chief -- Blair had a favorable rating among 72 percent of Americans while Bush received support from just 67 percent. Bush's unfavorable rating was three times as high as Blair's, and, at that moment, among those leaders the poll ranked, Blair was Americans' favorite figure on the world stage, outpolling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks. It therefore seems possible, maybe even likely, that in the months leading up to conflict, more Americans intuitively shared Blair's idealistic reasons for going to war than Bush's more narrow rationale. All of which is to say that it seems more than plausible that Americans would respond well to the ambition of a Blair-style foreign policy.

I asked David Kusnet, the former chief speechwriter for President Clinton (and a TAP Online contributor), what he thought of Blair's speech. He said he thought it was extremely impressive, and he proposed a fascinating historical analogy to explain why Democrats should take Blair's foreign policy seriously. Blair, Kusnet explained, is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the war on terrorism, while Bush is the Winston Churchill. (Bush has himself said that he regards Churchill as a model.) To be sure, Churchill was a great intellectual, a man with coherent and serious views about foreign policy, a longtime public servant -- in many ways the very opposite of Bush. And yet Kusnet sees certain parallels in the political roles that Churchill and Bush have played in the great conflicts of their respective times. Like Churchill, Bush represents the country that is most directly at risk to attack. Also like Churchill, he has chosen to conduct a war on narrow grounds of national interest. Finally, he has given the impression that he is fighting the war in order to protect the antebellum status quo of national security -- a fair objective to be sure, but a limited one. Blair, by contrast, like FDR, views his war not as a mere fight to restore safety to the West but as a chance for a better world to rise out of the West's eventual victory. As Kusnet pointed out, Blair sees the war on terrorism not as an end unto itself but as a first step in a project to expand the boundaries of freedom and democracy, especially in the Middle East. "Churchill didn't have a 'Four Freedoms,'" Kusnet noted. "Roosevelt did."

From this historical analogy, Kusnet draws a political lesson that the Democrats should not ignore: Churchill was an effective wartime leader, but one who possessed only a narrow vision of what victory for Britain would mean. As a result, British voters discarded him almost immediately upon World War II's conclusion. But FDR's idealistic foreign policy transcended the war itself -- and so, while he did not survive to run for a fifth term, his postwar ideals were vindicated by voters when they re-elected Harry Truman in 1948.

By eschewing the high ground of foreign-policy idealism, Bush may well be setting himself up to suffer Churchill's fate. For his part, Blair at this point seems most likely to end up being the Mikhail Gorbachev of British politics -- beloved by Americans, detested by his own constituents. Whether or not Blair's foreign policies get him kicked out of office in Britain, they remain popular on this side of the Atlantic, and there is reason to believe that they would translate well to American politics -- if only some Democrat would pick them up. In the closing moments of his speech last week, one could sense Blair imploring someone to do just that; to explain to average voters -- those residents of Nevada or Idaho -- why it is in their interest for the United States to play a high-minded role in world affairs. Helping post-9-11 voters to connect their fear to their optimism is what a real leader would do. No American politician has done it yet. But Tony Blair has shown the way.

Richard Just is editor of The American Prospect Online.