An Ally's Victory

Saturday, May 7, 2005

WHEN BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair received the Congressional Gold Medal in July 2003 and addressed a joint session of Congress, he elicited laughter as, a bit ruefully, he thanked the U.S. legislators for their applause: "That's more than I deserve," he told them, "and more than I'm used to, quite frankly."

We recalled that implicit acknowledgment of hardball British politics as we watched Mr. Blair campaign and, on Thursday, win reelection as prime minister. Mr. Blair spent much of the past month on the defensive, attacked for supposedly misleading the nation into war in Iraq and for being too smooth, too glib or in some other way unlikable. As soon as his victory was announced, with a reduced but still comfortable majority in Parliament, detractors and observers began speculating about how soon he might be forced to resign in favor of his Labor friend and rival, Gordon Brown. Mr. Blair was widely described as "chastened."

All of which struck us as a bit harsh for a man who had just brought the Labor Party to a third consecutive victory for the first time in history. It's true the party's popular vote declined by about 6 percentage points, to 36 percent in a three-way race. But given the inevitable disappointments with any ruling party after eight years, and given that Mr. Blair had led Britain to join the United States in war because he believed it was the right thing to do, knowing the decision would be deeply unpopular with his voters, the victory seemed at least as remarkable as the reduced margin.

Whether Mr. Blair now serves out a full five-year term, as he has said he intends, or leaves No. 10 Downing Street much sooner is a matter of British domestic politics and not for outsiders to say. But it's not inappropriate for outsiders to note just why Mr. Blair has been such a remarkable ally, not just of two successive U.S. presidents of differing parties but of the United States itself.

It's not just that British troops have shouldered the burdens in Iraq along with Americans, even as those burdens proved far heavier than predicted. Nor is it only Mr. Blair's forceful promotion of the values that, at best, bind the two nations: "Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose," he told Congress, "the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police."

It's also that, in standing by America's side, Mr. Blair has been a discreet but persistent advocate for America's better instincts. In his 2003 address, Mr. Blair told Congress what it might have wanted to hear: "There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers." But he did not stop with those reassuring words. "And what America must do is show that this is a partnership built on persuasion, not command," he went on. "Let us start preferring a coalition and acting alone if we have to, not the other way round. True, winning wars is not easier that way, but winning the peace is. And we have to win both."

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