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The American Blair

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Bush and Blair at a July 2003 news conference in Washington D.C. The Iraq War allies face mounting criticism.  

No, I say. It’s easy enough to believe. As Blair himself told Jon Stewart, he likes George W. Bush.

“But I mean respect him, actually,” he says. “He had very difficult decisions to take after September the 11th, and I think he took the right decisions, actually. I’m afraid that if there was any collective mistake that was made, it was not understanding how deep the struggle is and how long it’s going to have to be fought.”

I’ve heard another interpretation of Blair’s war motives in the U.K. The theory is that he’s grandiose, craving for himself and for Britain a larger, more historic role on the world stage—his critics often refer to his instincts to save the world as Blair’s “messiah complex,” perhaps because he, like Bush, is a believer. But have one conversation with Blair, and it’s clear faith—he very publicly converted to Catholicism after he left office—hasn’t made him grandiose. (Indeed, Blair’s one of the best listeners in public life I’ve ever met.) Rather, it seems to have made him serene. “What I’ve observed,” says George Foulkes, the former undersecretary for international development, who himself voted for the war in the House of Commons, “is that it gave him great inner strength during some awful personal criticism and personal attacks. And I must say, when I was smarting under the criticism, I could see him … not shrugging it off, exactly, but it was less hurtful to him, because he was so fortified by that belief that he has.”

In an interview with Sky News in 2006, Blair more or less allowed as much. The ultimate judgment on his choice to send troops into Iraq, he said, wasn’t only made by the people. “If you believe in God,” he said, “it’s made by God as well.”

I ask Blair if he still talks To George Bush. “Of course. I’m not a fair-weather friend,” he says. “I respect him, actually.”

Woolsey Hall, a few weeks earlier. The place is packed to the rafters, the 2,200 tickets having been snapped up within hours of being offered. Blair sits onstage with a student, Lita Tandon; the president of Yale University, Richard Levin; and Paul Kennedy, the historian who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Just hours ago, Blair taught his first class on faith and globalization. Tandon asks Blair the inevitable question: Knowing what you now know, would you have made the choice to invade Iraq?

He is prepared for this moment. “This is where you end up dividing the audience into me and a small number … and the rest.” It does the trick. People start laughing. When the conversation is over, the entire room leaps to its feet.

“He got a standing ovation,” marvels Drew Collins, one of Blair’s students, when asked about it later. “At Yale. And this campus was not in favor of the Iraq War.”

Because the premiership of his charismaless successor, Gordon Brown, was more or less a disaster until the financial crisis, Blair’s standing in his native country has considerably improved over the last year, with a Daily Mail poll from this summer showing that a full 53 percent of Brits regretted his departure. “The vast majority of ordinary people who opposed the war haven’t forgotten,” explains Foulkes, “but they have forgiven.” Nowhere, however, does Blair command more admiration than in the United States. Like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, two other Atlanticists whose policies and outlook resonated deeply with Americans, Blair finds that he is liked far more over here than in his native country, even on liberal college campuses. In part, it’s a cultural phenomenon: Blair is a better American politician than most American politicians, a creation spun straight from the looms of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination—funny, self-effacing, articulate, progressive but not excessive, Bible-thumbing but not -thumping. In part, it’s because he stood resolutely by our side during the war, even as Russia and France poked us in the eye. He dignified this questionable act of preemptive aggression, gave it articulate meaning and moral heft. In July 2004, Blair ranked as the most popular international leader in a nationwide Harris poll, beating even Pope John Paul II, and in March 2007, long after our country had soured on the Iraq War, his American ratings remained high—65 percent—while Bush’s were bumping along in the low thirties. At Yale, where the student body and faculty were rather aggressively antiwar—Harold Attridge, the dean of the Yale Divinity School, concedes that he got a few angry letters from alums, “wondering what we were doing getting into bed with this guy”—Blair’s course on faith and globalization proved so popular an offering that 300 students applied for 25 slots.

Blair still commands international influence. His role as special envoy in the Middle East may have been complicated, even compromised, by his alliance with George W. Bush, with some never forgiving him for it—“he has not done a good job there at all,” one former adviser to the Palestinians tells me, “and he was a terrible choice”—but Blair, true to form, has managed to charm those in the region with whom he’s dealing, and he’s made a point of making himself known in the streets. “He’s been to Hebron, Jenin, Jericho, Ramallah, Nablus, the refugee camps,” says Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “I’m sure he knows half the Palestinians by now.” (When we close our conversation, he says to me, “When you speak to him, please give him my best regards.”) There’s even talk of Blair’s being the first president of the E.U. “I haven’t heard anyone say he should sit in the corner with a dunce cap on his head and not hit the world stage,” says Kim Campbell, the first woman in Canada to hold the job of prime minister. “He has political capital and a lot to offer.”


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