Western Allies In the Twilight
The two wounded warriors stood side by side in the sunshine of the White House Rose Garden. Tony Blair and George Bush, partners in a transatlantic alliance that has come a cropper in Iraq, tried to shield each other from the slings and arrows of two nations' reporters.
Bush upbraided British journalists for "trying to do a tap dance" on the "political grave" of the soon-to-depart prime minister. Blair chided European politicians who, seeking what he called "the easiest round of applause, get up and attack America" and its president.
By the end of an agonizing half-hour news conference, what they had left was their shared conviction that their nations stand alone, together, against an evil menace in the world.
Stripped of political protection by their woeful domestic approval scores, Blair (with just about 40 days left in power) and Bush (with about 19 months to go) are driven by the nightmare both have seen close at hand.
The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and the 7/7 London subway and bus bombings shook both Bush and Blair from any sense of complacency and armed both men with a conviction that their preeminent mission was to combat the forces behind those assaults. Both men now believe -- no, are passionately and permanently convinced -- that the terrorist threat from radical Islamists is one that must be resisted at all costs.
As usual, it was Blair who put the proposition best. "The reason why it's important that Britain holds steadfast to the course of fighting alongside America in this battle against terrorism," he said, is that "the forces that we are fighting in Iraq -- al-Qaeda on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements on the other -- are the same forces we're fighting everywhere. . . . There is no alternative for us but to fight [extremism] wherever it exists. And that is true whether it's in our own countries -- which have both suffered from terrorism -- or in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"It's not about us remaining true to the course that we've set out because of the alliance with America. It is about us remaining steadfast because what we are fighting, the enemy that we are fighting, is an enemy that is aiming its destruction at our way of life and anybody who wants that way of life. And in those circumstances, the harder they fight, the more determined we must be to fight back. If what happens is, the harder they fight, the more our will diminishes, then that's a fight we're going to lose. And this is a fight we can't afford to lose."
Those are brave words, and a grateful Bush spoke from the heart when he said, "What I know is the world needs courage. And what I know is this good man is a courageous man."
What both men also know is that Blair has paid an awful price for allying himself with Bush on Iraq and other international issues. His Labor Party has been waiting impatiently for Blair to retire so the prime-minister-to-be, Gordon Brown, can redefine the terms of the alliance. Meantime, as a questioner was rude enough to point out, David Cameron, the leader of the resurgent Conservative opposition, finds it advisable to avoid even meeting Bush.
While the American president cannot be forced out of office against his will, he can be humiliated daily -- not only by his political adversaries but also by the incompetence of his own appointees. While standing with Blair, Bush was asked about recent disclosures of the wayward actions of two of them, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and he responded lamely to both questions. The fragile structure of his administration makes Bush's bragging sound delusional. He told reporters that he and Blair have "filled a lot of space together," because "we have had a unique ability to speak in terms that help design common strategies and tactics to achieve big objectives."
History will record that both of them saw the threat to the West posed by terrorism and responded courageously. The wisdom of their policy and the conduct of their governments are not likely to be judged as highly.