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The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency

James Naughtie
Thursday, September 16, 2004; 3:30 PM

In his new book, "The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency," Author and lead anchor of BBC Radio 4's Today show, James Naughtie analyzes British Prime Minister Tony Blair's close relationship with President Bush, his loyalty to America and the strength of this unlikely alliance.

Naughtie was online Thursday, Sept. 16, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss his book, Blair and the alliance between Britain and America.

Robert G. Kaiser (The Washington Post)

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, D.C.: Based on what you know about Blair, do you think he would have as good a relationship with Kerry as with Bush? I understand the ties between Bush and Blair have a lot to do with ideology regarding terrorism and faith, ie. both men are practicing Christians. However Clinton and Blair are still friends and Labour shares more ideology with the Democrats. Also, if Bush wins, do you see Blair distancing himself from Bush in the run-up to the British elections in 2005? Thanks.

James Naughtie: I'm tempted to say that if kerry won a couple of weeks after the election he'd be romping on a beach in nantucket with him... If JFK wins, past worries about TB will be forgotten. There may be a period of coolness, but in the end any incoming American president will want a European leader with Blair's experience, and will want to tie him into the difficult - dreadful, even - efforts to drag Iraq into stability. So, they HAVE to get on. But there has undoubtedly been some bad blood with the Democrats. Many of them - as many of Blair's party - have worried about the whole Iraq enterprise. If Bush wins, the assumption in London that it will be - to coin a Bush 41 phrase - a kinder, gentler adminstration, with more power in State and less in the Pentagon. That would suit Blair, who thinks - I would suggest - that policy in Iraq AFTER the invasion was botched - largely because Rumsfeld prevailed over Powell. If you were to ask whom Blair would LIKE to see in the White House after November, the honest answer is...I dont know. Nor, probably, does he.


USA: Unlike George Bush, Tony Blair is an intelligent, articulate, and sensitive man who is not afraid of engaging the full spectrum of his fellow citizens about his policies.

So it has honestly baffled me why he would get in bed so totally with a US foreign policy which was clearly misguided and doomed from the start.

The only really sensible explanation I can come up with is that Blair believes both that security trumps everything and that Britain is 100 percent dependent upon the U.S. for it's security in the world.

A related but secondary reason is that the U.S. called in the profound debt which Great Britain "owed" to us (for lack of better words) from World War II.

Any sense that either of these are true?

If so, has the Bush administration "spent" a lot of the political IOU's the US had with the UK?

Thank you, in advance, for your thoughtful answer. I'd really like to know the nature of the allegiance and give and take between the two men/countries.

James Naughtie: This is a good question. I do think it has very little to do with WWII debts, which are imnportant but have little bering on contemproary politics. TB was worried about terrorism before 9/11 and had discovered - to his surprise and enormous relief - that he could get on well, personally, with GWB. So after 9/11, TB's fears about terrorism, his natural sympathy with the US after the horror - emotions run high in his politcs - meant that he became convinced (unlike most of his Cabinet) that the "war on terror" was a battle that had to be fought side by side with Washington. If you point out to him, as I have done - read the book! - that he made common cause with neo cons who came from an entirely idfferent perspective, he will simply assert that he believed that approach to Saddam was correct and was therefore willing to go along with anyone who shared that view, whatever part of the political forest they crept out from. This doesnt convince most of his party - who think he placed the value on the special relationship with Washington far above sensible foreign policy - but it is the way he operates. He drew from the Thatcher years a belief in convction politics, as they become known, and he raqther enjoyds being the PM who goes against the grain. All these factors mean it is a potent mix....That's why we are where we are, and why the realtionship is simultaneously so strong and so puzzling.


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Naughtie, how much talk is there of Mr. Blair's personal faith with regard to his policies and his relationship with Mr. Bush? I understand he is considered fairly devout. What is his relationship with the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a self-described "hairy liberal"?

James Naughtie: Interesting! He is devout, but he thinks of the Religous Right in the states as terrifying. He wanted Rown Willians all along. His Anglo Catholicism is of the liberal variety : a meeting with Jerry Falwell is unlikely. Invite TB to a prayer breakfast, where people invoke God as an aid in battlem, and I can assure you he'd feind an excuse....His christianity is profound, but liberal....


Huntsville, Ala.: From what I read in the British press it seems many Britons feel that Blair is something of a "junior partner" (to put it nicely) in this relationship and that the UK's advice has largely been ignored in Iraq.

Is this true and now after the war are Blair and Bush still on good terms?

James Naughtie: He's certainly the junior partner : that's inevitable in a wrodl with one superpower. But, curiously, I think he udnerestimate his own power with Bsh, for whom it was very important in going into Iraq that he had a genuine internaitonal coalition. Anything else would have caused even bigger problems for the US around ther world - acting as polcieman, cowboy etc. and you cant claim that a coalition with Mauritious and Canada is REALYY a coalition - Powell and others told BUsh that he needed the Brits. Blair agreed, but many of his colleagues in government think that he should have been more willing to step back from time to time, and that he becaome too uncritical. In the UK, the jury is still out (and having a difficult time....)


San Antonio, Tex.: If, in your book, you argue that Blair is not a dupe of the neoconservatives or "Bush's poodle," how can the British and American publics really come to know what Blair's real beliefs about America are? Why did you come to call you work, The ACCIDENTAL American?" And why, oh why, did your publishers insert Tony Blair's into the oval portrait space of the American $5 bill, as depicted on your book's jacket?

James Naughtie: Cant speak for publishers...(and it's a 50 dollar bill, anyway).....As for Accidental, I argue that although the characters of Bush and Blair made this relaitonship it was produced by the accidentalt iming of 9/11 - the electrci shock that made the relationship what it became (and you might argue, Florida 2000....but that's another question). I make the simple point, I think - that these things arent preordained : they spring from character, attitude and ideology, but are usually finalised in the hurly-burly of unpredictable events. Marxists would believe otherwise...but I think these tides of history aren't inexorable. Like Hurrican Ivan you never know quite where they're going to hit land.


How much longer for Blair?: In a nutshell, how has Tony Blair survived this long with such a catastrophic outcome in Iraq and lacking the peculiar US administration's rationale for running it into the ground?

James Naughtie: He'll fight an election, I'd guess. next summer. He will - almost certainly - win. His most seirous opponents on the war would NEVER vote Conservative. My guess is that he will resign - as he has probably planned for some time - about 1 year into the third term. He COULD be depose, but if I were you I wouldn't put a nickel on that.,..


Arlington, Va.: I was so moved by PM Blair's remarks about standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the US on the day of 9/11, that I sent a letter to him thanking him for the remarks. (My first letter ever to a public official.) I had the sense that he understood that the same event could have occurred in London or Paris or Tokyo and that the West had a shared responsibility to take on the problem. Has he spent much time in the US (studying, etc.)? What motivates him? Could you also discuss his religious beliefs -- I believe Cherie is Catholic? I wish that he was our president.

James Naughtie: Thanks for these thoughts. I think he DID understand the depth of the shock : it is the fundamental answer to his commitment to GWB. As for his religious beliefs - they are strong, but as I said in an earlier answer, they are (in theological terms) very liberal. He attends Catholic services (Cherie is indeed a Catholic and so are the children....) and I'd describe him as Catholic in all but name. Although his is publicly devout; he keeps his detailed religious beliefs very private (and, if I may say so, quite right too)


Cleveland, Ohio: Hi,
Because of his great skill as a speaker Mr. Blair seems to be in an ideal position to publically critique isolationist tendencies in this administration. This would benefit everyone involved in my opinion.

If Bush survives the election do you think that he would do this?


James Naughtie: Interseting quesion. In a second Bush term, I'm pretty sure he'd become a more candid and critical friend....(especially about the way the post-invasion development of IRaq has been handled....)


Raleigh, N.C.: In the recent (and dreadful) film, LOVE ACTUALLY, the Prime Minister (played by Hugh Grant) snubs the womanizing American president (played by Billy Bob Thornton) and says that, from now on, Britain will chart its own course and not simply follow America's lead. But would any PM, of any party, NOT want to have a close (although not slavish) relationship with the US? Do Britons as a whole really dislike the US that much? (I certainly don't get that impression.)

James Naughtie: You make a good point. Of course, any PM HAS to have a good relationship with Washington. It's not an either or - with America or against it - because that would be silly. But with Blair there was a serious question about how deeply the traditional relationship should be sunk in the Iraq campaign. That was a genuine choice for him : should he be seen to step back a little, as many of his Cabinet colleagues wanted? The choice was never with bush or against him; it was, how close?


Washington, D.C.: As highlighted in James Fallows recent Atlantic Monthly article, Blair disagreed with Bush's belief that "the road to Jerusalem runs through Bagdad", viz., the belief that success in Iraq would allow the U.S. to lean on Sharon and broker a Israeli-Palestinian peace. Instead, Blair believed that "the road to Bagdad runs through Jerusalem" and that success in Israel would have greatly facilitated coalition building against Saddam Hussein. How fervently did Blair push this theory, and why did he go along with Bush policy nonetheless?

James Naughtie: You're right. Blair belie3ved - or allowed himself to believe - that he could get sustained progress on Israel-Palestine as a reward for his support. He didnt - by common consent - and it is one of the reasons that many of his colleagues think he sold his support too cheaply. He is deeply concerned about the Israeli-Palestine conflict (frustrated with sharon AND with the Palestinians) and must realise that he got promises from the White House that didnt materalise. Having said, that I suspect he always believed that Iraq was so important that he's back GWB whatever....REad the book!


Arlington, Va.: I have always enjoyed watching the British Prime Ministers (PM) taking and giving verbal arguments in front of the Parliment. Do you think the fact that the PM has to face 'the people' in this way and think on their feet in public makes a big difference vis-a-vis our presidency? I sometimes wonder how our current and past presidents would fare and how it might affect their electability if they had to take part in such exchanges regularly.

James Naughtie: How long have we got? The Parliamentary system has its weaknesses, but the necessity of facing questions each week - and making statements to Parliament on big topics - is one of the strengths. Funnily enough, I think some president would have been brilliant. LBJ, it seems to me, wa a natural parliamentarian. others would have been disastrous. No names...if you dont mind....


Western US: Any chance you might be willing to comment on George's and Tony's "father issues" which may affect their relationship with each other?

James Naughtie: Father issues? Well, where do we start. Blair I think has none....on the other hand....
let's leave it there...


San Antonio, Tex.: I know Tony Blair visited George W. Bush's Crawford, Tex. ranch in the spring of 2002 (we were passing through) and may have been there on more than just the one occasion. But at what point in the two leaders' relationship, did the friendship really start to gel? Of the two presidents, Clinton and Bush, which is Tony Blair the more comfortable with, if that comparison can be made?

James Naughtie: Interesting.They hit it off at their first meeting at Camp David in Feb 2001.....found their instincts and informality seems to match up. Blair came home very relieved. As for the judgement about clinton/Bush, blair and clinton are still close....but Blair has said (to me and others) that he thinks preson-to-person his government gets on better with the bush people. This, I have to say, is not a view shared elsewhere in his government....The truth is that he likes them both and speaks to them both a great deal....


Washington, D.C.: Is it fair to say that Blair is more widely liked in the US than in the UK? It seems that, as a pro-war Labour figure, Blair offers something for Americans both on the left and the right, politically. Americans can admire the particular features that they like about him without having to interact with him in the nitty-gritty of daily politics as Britons would.

James Naughtie: Good point. The close he got to the US, the lower he sank in Brit opinion polls - nnot because of anti-americansm(though there is a bit of that....) but simply because people want to see the trains run on time, the hospitals do more operations, the school exam results improve, etc etc. Dont forget, also, that he's been prime minister for more than seven years. The itch is strong : so it was quite natural that his popularity would shrink. You must remember, though, that he's still all-but-sure to win the next election. The failure of the opposition to rise more powerfully is unprecendented in modern British politics.


Munich, Germany: Now that the UK has usurped Canada as the closest ally to the US, how much influence over foreign policy can Blair exert over President Bush? As an example, I don't think that Canada really ever succeeded in influencing US foreign policy.

James Naughtie: The truth is that the British position has always been v different from Canada's : the defence/nuclear deal, the intelligence sharing/ the fundamentals of NATO - they've put Britain in a very different position. Blair beleived he could be the bridge between Europe and the US which he thought was essential for a peaceful world...whether he's succeeded we will only know in time...


Canada: Canada is not in the coalition that invaded Iraq. Britain has always had a difficult time deciding if it is European or an island off North America. Frankly, your so-called "special relationship" looks and sounds rather strange from here.

James Naughtie: I agree it's a strange and unsatisfactory phrase-, used to conceal rather than reveal. But it exists. Look at how many American troops are still on British soil, how US taxpayers pay more than half the cost of the main British intelligence-gathering centre, and you begin to get the picture....Ask the state Departmnent how they'd fancy running a foreign policy withou their european outposts and you'd get a scary answer....


Arlington, Va: It seems the right honorable prime minister has had a relatively lucky seven years in office, as he played second fiddle to Clinton and now seems to relish his role as mentor to Bush. What does he really think?

James Naughtie: Aha. No-=one knows trhat...perhaps not even him. But one thing is clear : he does believe - absolutely - that he did the right thing in supporting GWB in Iraq. That's beyond doubt. Whether he was right to believe that is quite another matter...


Wheaton, Md.: The Brittish have had a foreign policy based on stability and balance of power for centuries. Only after World War II has the US become the primary stabalizing force in the world. US and Brittish foreign policy is based on the same interests. Shame on the rest of Europe for not joining in.

James Naughtie: That's how TB would put it....perhaps a little more diplomatically!


Monterey, Calif.: Contrary to myth, Tony Blair is in no way a true friend of the United States.

After 9/11, the Bush administration was drunk with a blind desire for revenge and their own plans to remake the world in their image.

A true friend would taken away our keys and not allowed us to drive.

Instead, Tony Blair hopped into the passenger seat and did all the talking so no one could smell George Bush's reeking breath.

As someone who was desparately working to prevent the opening of Pandorra's box by our invading Iraq, I had been counting on Blair and our other moderate allies to help us show some restraint in a modern, interconnected world. Blair's enabling stance was a betrayal to Britain, the US, and the world community.

Oh, and to me as an individual human being as well.


James Naughtie: My comment is simple. There are a number of member of Blair's Cabinet who'd agree, almost word for word, with what you say.....Not all, but some....


Ellicott City, Md.: I was listening to NPR and they had the BBC on with Tony Blair stating that global warming was real and much worse than he imagined. This has gotten no play here. Might this also be a sign of tension between the White House that still sees no global warming and Mr. Blair?

James Naughtie: This is intriguing. It's an issue on which TB thinks - and says,m publicly - that he belives GWB is simply wrong. It's something on which they will never agree. But Iraq became more important....c'est la vie....


Arlington, Va.: Did reporters ever get straightened out what Pres. Bush meant that time when he implied that he and Prime Minister Blair had been sharing toothpaste?

Also, does anyone ever call you "Naughty Jim"?

James Naughtie: As to the last thing, all the time. but it's water off a duck's back now....The toothpaswte joke at Camp David was almost certainly a Karl Rove/Alastair Campbell bon mot for the waiting hords after what might have been a diffciult meeting....but it was a joke that did catch something of their early comfort with each other - and in the end that what has produced the policy/war that we've seen.jn


Prague, CR: Blair made a smart move. Instead of taking the path of Neville Chamberlain to acheave a temporary peace for temporary popularity, only to go down in history as a disgrace, he stood up to the pressure. Now, Blair, along with Bush, will go down in history as the leaders who defeated the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

James Naughtie: That's what he believes, though I think he know acknowledges that it might take longer than he thought at first....others in his government disagree. I wouldnt care to go further....


Washington, D.C.: What do you believe is next for PM Blair?

James Naughtie: Probabl;y an election victory next year - these things can never be certain but it's hard to bet on another outcome - but with a greatly reduced Parliamentary majority (it's historically at a ridiculously - and unhealthily - high level right now. after that, I suspect he will try to have a quick referendum on the European constition/currency - an extremely tetchy issue in the UK - and, win or lose, quite in the early part of the third term, having done, say 9 yeras as PM. He doesn't want to make that Thatcher mistake of hanging around o slong that you can't choreogrpah your own departure. But he's a man who surprises us all the time. The honest answer : I dont know.



San Antonio, Tex.: "The choice was never with Bush or against him; it was, how close?"

So, how close is "how close?" Will the alignment between Bush and Blair be so uncomfortable to the Brits that it may cause this master politician his office? Will the complex and often baffling relationship that for Mr. Blair has yielded the defining moments of his leadership threaten the statesman's legacy he, Blair, has sought to build?

James Naughtie: As for the legacy, I can't tell. Nor can he. The closeness question is inevitably in a grey area. I simply say that there were senior members of his Government who wanted him to express doubts about the rush to way in 2003 without giving the UN inspectors more time. They thought he could have played for time with benefit to his own political constituency at home and - they'd assert - to the world. TB simpl y took a different view. He believed the thing had to be brought to a head - and, incidentally, that WMD did exist in a way that intelligence now suggest they didnt. Sorry about the typing - this is frantic, but fun....


James Naughtie: This is to everyone who tuned in. I hope some of this made sense. It's a complicated question - Blair-Bush - which is, of course why it's so interesting. Read the book!



Frederick, Md.: As an ex-pat I'm interested in the changes that have come into the BBC post-Gilligan. What were the functional ramifications of the inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly for the BBC (apart from the resignations from the board etc)? How did the relationship with No. 10 change following the departure of the PM's press secreatary, Alistair Campbell?

James Naughtie: Realtions are, I think, better than they were during that awful period. Blair certainly wants to put that episode behind him : he wants the normal feisty to-and-fro relationship to resume, as it has. As for the BBC inside, we're obviously more determined than ever that (a) our obligations as a news broadcaster are fulfilled honestly in the public interest and (b) that we aren't influenced in our judgements by any government or political party in a way that compromises our journalistic independence. Properly excersied, its one opf the bulwarks of our democracy.


James Naughtie: That's it, everyone. It's been fun, and the questions - as I had expected - were right on the button. Do let me know if you have any questions after reading the book - james.naughtie@bbc.co.uk



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