The Blair He Could Have Been

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

At the beginning of Tony Blair's political career, his Tory opponents gave him the nickname "Bambi" because of his fawn-like appearance. Now at the end of his 10 years as prime minister, Blair is mocked in Britain as America's "poodle," a slavishly loyal supporter of George Bush and the Iraq war.

Blair had a bit of both animal instincts, deer and dog, but he also had the brilliant political gifts that might have made him a truly great prime minister and the defining politician of his era. That's what makes his story so sad: This immensely talented politician was devoured by Iraq -- and by his support for an American president he kept thinking, wrongly, he could dissuade from mistakes.

Watching Blair deliver a farewell address to the World Economic Forum in Davos last weekend, it was impossible not to think of what might have been. He gave a visionary speech about the values of global interdependence that will be necessary in the 21st century if the world is to survive. The speech seemed to me, in part, a declaration of independence from Bush, the president who took so much from Blair and gave so little in return.

In terms of Blair's reputation, his global manifesto was too late to do him much good. When he leaves office as prime minister, probably this summer, his political legacy will be summed up in one ruinous word: Iraq. But perhaps other politicians -- especially some of the Democratic presidential candidates who are full of ambition but short on ideas -- will pay attention to what Blair had to say at Davos.

Blair tried to address the crucial disconnect of the modern world -- between a global economy that is seamlessly integrated and a global political system that is broken and ineffective. He went to the heart of this problem of global governance: How can institutions be fixed so that the overriding problems of the 21st century, such as climate change, poverty in Africa and the conflicts in the Middle East, can actually be solved?

The British prime minister proposed some specific fixes, most of which departed from current American policy. To strengthen the U.N. Security Council, he suggested adding Germany, Japan, Brazil, India, and perhaps a Muslim or African nation -- initially through a "bridging mechanism" that would provide semi-permanent status without a veto. To make the United Nations itself more effective, he urged consolidating its jumble of ineffective agencies so that it can speak with one voice in each country. He proposed merging the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, improving their effectiveness and reducing their parochial European and American tilts, respectively. And he urged expansion of the Group of Eight nations to include emerging superstars such as China and India.

"We need a multilateralism that is muscular," Blair said. He argued that the problem wasn't so much a lack of political will as a lack of effective mechanisms to implement goals on which everyone agrees. He cited the genocidal conflict in Darfur, which he described as "a scandal; not a problem, a scandal." He also argued for a new binding agreement on global warming to replace the Kyoto accord and urged the world to meet the target he has set for Britain of a 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. In all these comments, he sounded like a leader for a world that badly needs one.

The mystery is how this man who believes so passionately in a multilateral agenda became the apologist and enabler for the most unilateralist U.S. administration in modern history. Blair's supporters say he saw no alternative after Sept. 11, 2001, but to stand with America. At each step deeper into Iraq, he appeared to have misgivings -- as in his insistence on the need for a second U.N. resolution to provide legal authority for the war. But when the U.N. vote failed, and when his later efforts to sway the administration's Middle East policy went unheeded, Blair followed along meekly. The final indignity was when he stood silently by Bush in December as the president trashed proposals to engage Syria and Iran -- an idea Blair had privately championed.

Blair got it right when he said, in answer to a question after his Davos speech, that the West's fine talk of democracy and freedom has little meaning if it is not anchored in a sense of justice. Without such bedrock values, the grand goals of the Atlantic alliance are empty. Sadly, that might be Blair's own political epitaph: A great leader who too often subordinated his own values to please an American president.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at His e-mail address

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