For Blair, a Legacy Overshadowed

A month after the Iraq invasion, President Bush conferred with his closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a castle in Northern Ireland.
A month after the Iraq invasion, President Bush conferred with his closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a castle in Northern Ireland. (By Eric Draper -- The White House Via Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 10, 2007

LONDON -- In July 2003, the U.S. Congress voted to award Prime Minister Tony Blair a Congressional Gold Medal for being "a staunch and steadfast ally of the United States of America." Since George Washington earned the first medal in 1776, the legislature's most prestigious award has been presented only 134 times, to figures such as Ulysses S. Grant, Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa.

Nearly four years later, Blair has not picked up his prize.

"He is a very busy guy," said a spokesman at Blair's 10 Downing Street office.

But critics, and even some supporters, contend that Blair is unwilling to drape a shiny U.S. medal around his neck just now because it would be too glaring a reminder of his extremely close -- and poisonously unpopular -- relationship with President Bush and the Iraq war, for which his critics dismiss him as "Bush's poodle."

After a decade in office, longer than any British leader in a century except Margaret Thatcher, Blair is widely expected to announce Thursday that he will step down in early July.

While he led his Labor Party to three national election victories, resuscitated the British economy and helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, many analysts here agree that the charismatic prime minister will be remembered mainly for his shoulder-to-shoulder stand with Bush on Iraq.

"When he came in, it was 'education, education, education,' but his legacy is 'Iraq, Iraq, Iraq,' " said Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003.

Blair and Bush have always seemed an unlikely pair: a European leader from a left-of-center party with socialist roots, and a conservative Texas Republican with open skepticism of European elites. But Blair's alliance with Bush over Iraq fits a pattern dating back a decade, according to people who have worked closely with Blair and authors who have written about him.

Since he took office in May 1997, Blair has argued that military intervention in sovereign nations is justified to stop atrocities. And long before Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, Blair repeatedly identified Saddam Hussein as a serial human rights violator and threat to the world.

At the same time, those who know Blair well said he believes that Britain is best served by a prime minister who keeps an airtight relationship with the U.S. president and stays "inside the tent" with him to influence policy. He established such a close relationship with President Bill Clinton that many American observers were surprised when he hit it off so quickly with Bush, Clinton's political opposite. But Blair was just being consistent.

Those core beliefs led Blair to stand by Bush when other world leaders distanced themselves. But they also cornered Blair at times when he and Bush disagreed, especially over the need for broad international backing for military action in Iraq. Blair had been so passionate and public in his promises to stand by America and his view that Hussein needed to go, they said, that it became virtually impossible for him to change tack.

Blair failed to challenge Bush on fundamental strategic questions -- chiefly whether military action in Iraq was being rushed and whether there had been proper planning for the aftermath, analysts said.

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