By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 18, 2007
The last time I had seen Prime Minister Tony Blair was on July 7, 2005, the day terrorists left a spray of glass and bodies across Tavistock Square in London. Blair, presiding over a Group of Eight summit at a golf resort in Scotland, was at first shaken and subdued. But as he gathered information on the attacks, he visibly gathered resolve. Before heading down to London, he showed me the speech he had written for that evening -- concise, elevated, with a perfect pitch of restrained emotion -- which I was powerless to improve.
On Wednesday, sitting in shirtsleeves by the pool at the British Embassy in Washington, Blair recalled that day, along with Sept. 11, 2001, as evidence of a movement with "completely unnegotiable demands" that is "prepared to visit unlimited destruction."
"They are prepared to play a long game," he told me, "and they believe that we are not." Blair's impending departure from the game makes that terrorist belief more plausible.
The prime minister's staff, over drinks, will complain that he cares too much for the views of the press and that he makes decisions at the last possible minute. But they also describe an active intelligence and a rare ability to see the logical essence of things.
More than that of any other world leader, Blair's foreign policy approach is a rigorous, logical argument. Like advancements in communications and the global economy, political challenges, Blair contends, have "immediate impact, an ability to cross frontiers." Irresponsible and failing states become bases of operation for terrorist, crime and drug syndicates. This chaos is tamed, in his view, by promoting economic development, treating killer diseases, fighting global warming and achieving peace in the Middle East -- an agenda of exhausting idealism. "Justice," he says, "is the thing that is most powerful in its appeal to people."
But Blair's liberalism not only purrs, it bites. When distant chaos grows too intense and threatening, Blair has advocated military interventions from Kosovo to Sierra Leone to Afghanistan to Iraq.
His muscular internationalism might best be described as half globalization theory and half Gladstone -- the Victorian-era, Liberal prime minister who symbolizes high-minded, humanitarian intervention. Blair speaks a neon language of right and wrong and sees Britain as a global force for good. And he has little patience for a trendy moral equivalence:
"The reason why the stance of a lot of public opinion is quite defeatist in my view is because we are still saying, 'Well, they've got a point, we understand their grievance, maybe it is our fault.' . . . We get rid of two of the most brutal and terrible dictatorships, who've killed hundreds of thousands of their people, we then say you can have a United Nations-backed process of democracy -- and you say that provoked them to terrorism. I mean, explain that one for me."
In our conversation, Blair would not be drawn into second-guessing on failures in early stages of the Iraq war -- troop levels, de-Baathification and the like. Those debates, while "perfectly legitimate," do not account for decisive factors beyond the control of the coalition, particularly the bombing campaign of al-Qaeda and Iran's strategy of "containing America" by seeking to "bog them down in Iraq."
"If those two external elements were not there, this thing would be very nearly manageable," Blair told me. "Sometimes you have to come to a very simple conclusion, which is that your enemies decided to fight you."
In the conventional wisdom, Blairism has been buried under the debris of Iraq. Yet Blair insists there is no substitute for an active internationalism. "The alternative, in the end, comes down to a combination of either hope that it [terrorism] doesn't come after us, which after 9/11 isn't very sensible, or alternately in certain parts of Europe, leave that to the Americans."
Whatever the outcome of the Iraq war, the world Blair describes is not going away. Will the next prime minister and the next U.S. president serenely accept the proliferation of terrible weapons to unstable regimes? Will they ignore the pleas of dissidents and the suffering that comes from treatable disease? Perhaps. But those leaders would find that there are moral consequences to inaction as well as to action and that retreat can lead to some nasty and dangerous places.
Predicting a legacy is a tricky thing, but Blair's is clear. Thirty years ago, Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield mockingly asked, "Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?" By this high standard, Tony Blair is a liberal.