Nobody's Poodle Now

What drives Tony Blair? Why is he one of the few world leaders willing to put his political career at risk to stand shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush?

Prime Minister Blair and President Clinton—that was an easy-to-understand combination: two skilled politicians, both of them men of formidable intellect and eloquence, both of them men with roots on the left who aimed to bring their parties to the center.

But Blair and Bush? What's that about?

Not ideology—Blair and Bush have vastly different political values on many things. It doesn't seem to be personal. In background, style, and personality, the two leaders have nothing in common—or almost nothing. "Well, we both use Colgate toothpaste," Bush remarked when they first met in February 2001.

Blair's alliance with Bush seems to endanger his own political interests. Sure, some other world leaders do support the American president. But they're conservatives—Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, for example. In those countries, just as in the United States, conservative parties tend to favor war with Iraq.

But Blair's Labor Party is a party of the left. The war is not popular with the Labor Party, and neither is Bush. "It is clearer and clearer that President Bush and his advisers always wanted a war," Tony Banks, a Labor member of Parliament, complained during a recent House of Commons debate.

In some ways, Blair is in a more secure political position than Bush. Labor enjoys a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, holding 410 of 635 seats. The Conservative Party has no great credibility: The Tories lost the last two elections by landslides, and they've gone through three leaders in six years.

Moreover, the Conservative Party tends to favor Blair's policy in Iraq. "This war is never going to be easy, but the cause, I believe, is just," Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said shortly after the war started. Contrast that with the blistering comment that Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., made on March 17: "I'm saddened, saddened, that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."

But in another way, Blair is less secure than Bush. As a parliamentary leader, Blair can be overthrown by his own party, as happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990. She supported an unpopular tax that provoked massive public demonstrations. Her Conservative Party was sinking in the polls. The party forced her out as prime minister and replaced her with John Major.

This year's anti-war demonstrations in London have been even bigger than the ones against Thatcher's hated tax. And more than a third of Blair's party in Parliament voted last month against his war policy.

Blair has long been seen as a calculating, poll-driven politician, rather than as a man of conviction. But every poll taken in Britain before this war showed massive public opposition to it. Yet when Blair took his country into war, the polls turned around in his favor.

Ten days before the war began, an ICM Research poll for the Sunday newspaper News of the World found only 29 percent of the British public approving of Blair's handling of the situation in Iraq. A few days into the war, the same polling firm found that the prime minister's approval rating on Iraq had nearly doubled, to 55 percent. Instead of being led by the polls, Blair has led the polls. No one in Britain calls him "Bush's poodle" any more.

Perhaps Blair is a man of conviction. But what convictions led him to take such a bold risk?

In part, they were his humanitarian convictions. Blair has always been a human-rights activist. Recall that it was Blair, not Clinton, who led the 1999 campaign for NATO to halt the perpetrators of atrocities in Kosovo.

In Parliament last month, Blair asked rhetorically, "So why does it matter so much?" His reply focused in part on the fact that the outcome will determine "the future of the Iraqi people for so long brutalized by Saddam."

Blair seems to have equally powerful convictions about Britain's national security interests. He sees them as inextricably linked to those of the United States. Many Europeans would like to see Europe divided from the United States so it can become a check on U.S. power in the world—in effect, a Europe united by anti-Americanism.

"What we have witnessed is indeed the consequence of Europe and the United States dividing," Blair told Parliament. "The heart of it has been the concept of a world in which there are rival poles of power—the U.S. and its allies in one corner, France, Germany, and Russia and its allies in the other." Blair is convinced that such a division is dangerous. By joining with Bush, he stands firmly against it.

Did Blair get anything from Bush in return? It was at Blair's insistence that Bush put the Iraq issue before the United Nations. That effort failed, but Blair came to Washington last week to argue for a central U.N. role in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

Blair also got Bush to commit himself to a new peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Both the U.N. involvement in reconstruction and the Middle East peace process are high priorities for Blair and for the British. They don't call Tony Blair a shrewd politician for nothing.