No one who has ever seriously believed in any cause finds it easy to criticize
that same cause in public. The doubter's life can be hard, lonely and insecure.
Conscience makes cowards of good people, around whom the habit of loyalty coils
like a snake, difficult to shake off. In the battle between the heart and the
head there is never an easy winner.
Tony Blair's belief in the importance of the US is a classic example of the
perils of an undifferentiated loyalty. His own current problems need to be understood
with that in mind. Some of his judgments over Iraq make sense, but are not necessarily
excused by the fact that Blair is engaged in a struggle with realities which threaten
one of his most enduring instincts.
Blair has long held the view that British domestic politics take place downstream
from the US. He thinks Bill Clinton's election in 1992, and still more his re-election
in 1996, were essential preconditions for Labour's own victory a few months later
in 1997. He thought that the presence of a Democratic president in the White House
made Labour appear to be cutting with the grain of history, not against it.
By the same yardstick, Blair saw George Bush's election in November 2000 as
a more serious challenge to Labour than most people realize. It was one of the
main reasons why he was so determined to be the first foreign visitor to Bush
in early 2001. By getting to the president's shoulder at Camp David, Blair aimed
to squash any pre-election attempt by William Hague to position the Conservatives
as the party in touch with the new America. He is just as determined to prevent
Iain Duncan Smith doing the same thing now.
Since 1997, Blair's belief in the importance of America has of course widened
from domestic to international politics. He seems gradually to have formulated
an approach to foreign policy which sees the US as the essential nation in the
settlement of global and regional issues, and which identifies the Anglo-American
relationship as the necessary catalyst ensuring American global engagement rather
Just how much he really believes in the mystique of the so-called "special
relationship" is a hard call, especially given the more overwhelming evidence
that Blair thinks of himself as a European. But he certainly acts the part of
First Buddy with conviction.
No one who heard Blair speak at a White House dinner with Clinton in 1998 would
be in much doubt where his heart as well as his head lay. That evening Blair quoted
the biblical remarks of Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt's emissary to Churchill,
at a wartime dinner in London: "Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou
lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even
to the end."
Nearly two years into the Bush administration's term, it is easy to forget
that Blair sometimes had to struggle to secure US international engagement under
Clinton too, and over committing US forces in Kosovo in particular. But any problems
which Blair encountered with Clinton are as nothing beside those he has faced
with his successor. As Frances Fitzgerald writes in a compelling essay in the
current issue of the New York Review of Books: "The Bush administration has clearly
broken with the internationalist premises that have been accepted by every other
administration since World War Two, with the exception of Reagan's first."
As Fitzgerald points out, George Bush has rarely defined the goals of his administration's
foreign policy. In public, he has talked mainly in vague, general terms. Depending
on his audience, as in his adjoining article today, there is more or less mention
of allies. But in most Bush speeches, the world is a place of threats against
which US-defined solutions offer the greatest security. It was summed up in Bush's
election campaign comment about threats to America: "We're not so sure who the
they are, but we know they're there."
One result is that no one, including America's allies and perhaps including
Bush himself, has a very clear idea of the kind of world that Bush would really
like to see beyond US shores. Perhaps he will rectify that omission when he addresses
the UN today in New York. But the other result is that Bush's subordinates, led
by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly set the agenda in a series
of steps which amount to a wholesale repudiation of any theory based on collective
action and alliances.
The extreme version of this approach is summed up by the number three man at
the State Department, John Bolton, who once proclaimed: "There is no such thing
as the UN. There is an international community that can be led by the only real
power left in the world, and that is the US, when it suits our interests and when
we can get others to go along."
A parallel approach has recently allowed the Pentagon, which has systematically
opposed, abrogated and binned a series of international treaties, to abandon its
long-standing "threat-based strategy" in favor of a "capabilities-based approach".
According to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld this means that America needs to build
up its defenses on land, sea, air and space "to defend our nation against the
unknown". As Fitzgerald points out: "For the overall Defense budget, a 'capabilities-based
approach' means simply that the Pentagon can ask for whatever it wants without
having to justify its requests by the existence of even a potential enemy."
This is the reality which constantly subverts Blair's attempts to portray the
Bush administration as a willing partner in the new moral order that the prime
minister advocated at Brighton last year. He was at it again this week, claiming
to the TUC that in today's world "internationalism is practical statesmanship".
Everywhere but in Washington, it should be added.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy with Blair's predicament. He believes
in the right things. He is trying to exert an influence that needs to be exerted
in pursuit of a good strategy that would make the world a safer and better place.
Yet for all his efforts he gets only grief, in Washington and at home.
He gets grief because there is a profound disjunction between what he wants
to believe about this administration and what is in fact the case. But this administration
has trashed the rules that Blair wants to play by. Rather than face that reality
head on, he pretends, in public at least, that it does not exist. It's the mistake
that other loyalists in other causes have made down the years. Like them, Blair
faces a choice between heart and head, and between loyalty and truth. Like them,
he risks allowing excess loyalty and insufficient clarity to make the wrong call.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002