Published on Wednesday, December 19, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Two Wise Men
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair Are Now Singing From the Same Song Sheet. And Absolutely Nobody is Listening
by Jonathan Freedland
They once ruled the world like two masters of the universe. During the closing years of the 20th century, they were comrades on a shared, global mission: Bill and Tony's excellent adventure. Today Bill Clinton and Tony Blair - the men who transformed their parties and won election and re-election as a result - are still political soulmates.
Scan the text of the former president's Dimbleby lecture shown on BBC TV, or any of the variations on that theme Clinton delivered at venues around Britain last week, and they read like translations into American of Blair's October speech to the Labour party conference in Brighton. Like Blair, Clinton calls for a war on global poverty, with the rich countries facing up to their responsibilities to the poor. Like Blair, he wants the benefits of globalization shared around. Like Blair, he believes the world's problems can be solved, as long as we have the will.
The two even use the same phrase to describe us: we are all the children of Abraham. And the pair have one final thing in common: no one is listening to either of them. Clinton is the more remarkable bearer of the message. He is the only American of stature who has dared stray into such ultra-sensitive territory - seeking to identify the underlying causes of the terror that struck his country on September 11.
For many in the US this is dangerous ground, with any attempt at explanation risking condemnation as justification. Most have steered clear. But, always the master politician, Clinton knows how to navigate such difficult terrain. First in his lectures he sets out his support for his successor's fight against al-Qaida, wishing it well and assuming its eventual success. Then he swiftly moves on to what will have to be done next: "We're gonna win this fight - then what?"
And it's here that Clinton unveils his deceptively progressive message. Packaged in hoarse-throated, folksy homilies and plain, colloquial language, it can easily float past the British ear: we tend to expect harder nouns and more "-isms" in our radical politics. But progressive it is. Clinton is calling for a collective offensive by the rich world on poverty, Aids and the environment. He wants nations like his own to pay up for schools, healthcare and, as he told the Jewish National Fund in London last week, "the little, biddy kids who never get to drink a clean glass of water".
For him, as it was for Blair, this is not just do-gooding for do-gooding's sake: it is a matter of international security. Global warming is worth defeating because, if we don't defeat it, we will lose land to flooding, "there will be millions of food refugees created... more terror".
Being Clinton, he finds fresh, accessible ways to make the case. So Aids should be conquered because, if it isn't, the future will look like a Mad Max movie: "A whole lot of young people around the world will say, 'Well, I'm HIV positive, I've got a year or two to live, why shouldn't I go out and shoot up a bunch of other people?' " (Can't quite hear Blair saying that.) But the core argument is that used by left liberals since September 11: "We in the wealthy countries have to spread the benefits of the 21st century, and reduce the risks, so we can make more partners and fewer terrorists in the future."
But Clinton does not leave it there. He pushes his audiences further, asking them to look beyond the "little boxes" of their own identity or ethnicity, and to appreciate the variety and difference that makes the human race such a joy. "Think about how we all organize our lives in little boxes - man, woman; British, American; Muslim, Christian, Jew; Tory, Labour; New Labour, Old Labour; but somewhere along the way, we finally come to understand that our life is more than all these boxes we're in. And that if we can't reach beyond that, we'll never have a fuller life."
It is a powerful idea, simply expressed - and it takes Bill Clinton into a new, unfamiliar realm. These are less the words of a politician than a would-be moral leader: that's how high he is reaching. This elevated quality gives the current Clinton speech its stirring strength. But it also points to his greatest weakness. He holds no office and therefore has no immediate power. That is the brute truth of politics and Clinton knows it. He can give a great speech, but there is no force behind his words: no army to dispatch, no vast bureaucracy to deploy. And so there is a wistful cast to the former president's eye. He misses his job. As one ex-aide sighs, "He's lost." But perhaps the big man also regrets all the big, global moves that he didn't make when he had the chance.
Still, Clinton's problem is more than a classic case of ex-president syndrome. Even if he were not the messenger, his message would find no mainstream constituency in America right now. Tune in to the US conservative punditocracy and you'll hear people high on military victory in Afghanistan and in no mood for pinko talk about underlying causes. For the hawks, terrorism has a simple cause - evil people - and an even simpler solution: annihilation by force. Why would anyone want to listen to Clinton on Aids when 15,000-pound daisycutters have done the trick instead?
Tony Blair is in the same hole. Yes, he was awarded garlands in America for acting as evangelist-in-chief in the war against terror; yes, even loyal Republicans ranked his rhetorical gifts above George W's. But that was all they wanted to hear from Britain's prime minister. He was allowed to be America's cheerleader in its hour of need; we were allowed to play the Star Spangled Banner at Buckingham Palace. But the rest of Blair's message - the Brighton speech calling for a reordering of the world, spreading hope from the camps of Gaza to the mountains of Afghanistan - all that was dismissed as hand-wringing nonsense. The Bush administration is no more willing to hear it from Blair than it is from Clinton; when al-Qaida's complete surrender is within the US's grasp, why fret about clean water for Africa or the need for a democratic breeze to blow through the cobwebs of the Muslim world?
One last factor hampers Blair. His attempts to graduate from spokesman to statesman have not gone well. His Middle East tour at the end of October brought consecutive humiliations from Syria's President Assad and Israel's Ariel Sharon, while British pride was dented when the US and Northern Alliance jointly denied our troops entry into Kabul. The result is a fall in Blair's stock, with even Britain's military brass muttering that the PM needs to stop and think before committing our troops to serve as a glorified aid agency.
The harsh fact is that the hawks are in the ascendant just now, utterly vindicated in their own eyes by the Afghan triumph. At present they see no reason to heed the long-range warnings of Blair and Clinton: only another atrocity might make them do that. So the PM and the former president will just have to keep on making speeches, and growing hoarse in the task.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001