Coalition Of the Erring

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Imagine where British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be if he hadn't joined with President Bush in prosecuting the Iraq war.

It's hard to resist imagining an alternative universe after hearing Bush and Blair offer their apologies last Thursday for difficulties in Iraq that they did not foresee. It was even more heartbreaking to study Blair's Georgetown University speech the next day, which -- in perfect Third Way fashion -- amended Bush's approach to the world with a vigorous internationalism that would appeal to many of the president's critics.

At their joint news conference, Bush shocked most of his listeners by actually apologizing for something. Except for speaking of his regrets over Abu Ghraib, Bush concentrated on mistakes in the way he said things.

"Saying 'Bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people," Bush said. "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner -- you know, 'wanted, dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted."

It was striking that Bush focused on the sound of his words and the fact that they had not seemed "sophisticated." But as George Orwell argued in "Politics and the English Language," published in 1946, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

What was foolish were the thoughts Bush conveyed: that foreign policy was about his toughness and swagger, that the United States could transform the world and count on potential allies to follow along or acquiesce. The melodrama of the great American Western -- "Wanted, Dead or Alive" -- would be a sufficient story line for one of the most complicated foreign enterprises ever pursued by an American government.

It remains maddening to many who admire Blair that he went along with all this. You wish, at least, that the prime minister could have edited Bush's rhetoric. More important, you wish Blair would have pushed Bush much harder to approach the rest of the world in a way that would have left us with a few more friends and allies.

Blair speaks as if he has no doubts. His defense of the policies he and the president pursued in Iraq was so forceful and articulate that Bush, at the end of one of Blair's eloquent mini-speeches at their news conference, commented: "I'm going to say, that was a great answer."

But Blair's Georgetown speech the next day, while defending the Iraq war, was also an implicit critique of Bush's foreign policy. That's true, even taking into account the Sunday Telegraph's report that Blair softened his remarks on climate change, Iran and other issues at the Bush administration's request.

"Interdependence -- the fact of a crisis somewhere becoming a crisis everywhere -- makes a mockery of traditional views of national interest," Blair declared. "You can't have a coherent view of national interest today without a coherent view of the international community. Nations, even ones as large and powerful as the U.S.A., are affected profoundly by world events; and not affected in time or at the margins, but at breakneck speed and fundamentally."

Calling for "a new concord to displace the old contention," Blair urged the world to help Iraq in its struggle for democracy, but also insisted on joint action to reduce global poverty, deal with climate change and respond to the catastrophe in Sudan.

Blair laid out a broad agenda for reforming international institutions, including the United Nations, and creating new ones. In the process, he suggested that Bush had missed a great opportunity to be the Harry Truman whom he praised lavishly in his address to West Point cadets on Saturday. Just as Truman, George Marshall and Dean Acheson built effective organizations that served the world well for decades after World War II, so did the world need to be reorganized in the wake of the Cold War and in the face of globalization. Too bad Blair couldn't get Bush moving on this four years ago.

Invoking a commitment to the common good that many see as naive in the international sphere, Blair insisted that the "national self-interest" could be best achieved through "effective communal action."

Paradoxically, Bush's best ally may have delivered to the president's political opponents the outlines of a coherent approach to the world. To believe in internationalism, international cooperation and global justice is not soft, but essential and practical. Some who would never accept such thoughts from the likes of John Kerry or Al Gore might give them a second look after hearing them from Blair.

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