Most world leaders, like movie stars, have a certain intensity when they walk into a room. Not Tony Blair. He’s mild, light on his feet; he disarms not with seduction but with extreme agreeableness. The first time we meet, in a formal room of the president’s house at Yale University, he pulls open the door and walks in before his aide does. There’s no warning, no fanfare, no nothing. Just … boom, there he is.
“I’m so sorry to be dressed like this.” Which is to say, by Blair standards, informally: gray T-shirt, blazer, acid-washed jeans.
As it happens, today is November 5, the day after Barack Obama’s victory, and Blair seems as elated as the rest of the world. He says he spent the evening in the Caribbean flipping between the BBC and CNN (he declines to give details, but his friend Cliff Richard owns a house in Barbados). “I’ve never known an election to create so much interest and transform people’s view of America again in a positive way,” he says. “Young people out in the middle of nowhere in Palestine have said to me, ‘They wouldn’t really elect a black man to the presidency,’ and I’ve said, ‘Well, I think they would.’ But they’ve been taught for so long that America is … what it actually isn’t. And that’s why this is an enormous moment. It thrills America’s friends and sort of confuses its enemies.”
Blair is familiar with this particular sensation of political euphoria, of course. Like Obama, he was a highly pedigreed lawyer who ran as a post-partisan change candidate. Like Obama, he broke years of what seemed, to progressives, like interminable conservative rule. Like Obama, he was nonconfrontational in style, charismatic without heat (reedy frame, wide-caliber smile), and idealistic without being ideological. His speeches also inspired and rang with logic. International leaders also embraced him and saw his victory as the dawn of a new era. The weight of the world and his own country’s expectations rode heavily, too, on his shoulders. So how, I ask Blair, can Obama make the most of this moment?
“What he can do—and I believe that he will—is find an agenda that is capable of unifying the world,” he says. “An agenda that is about America leading and America listening simultaneously. That’s the key.”
All of which sounds about right. The peculiar irony of this position is that Blair’s own tenure, no matter how distinct his accomplishments—reviving and redefining the Labor Party in the manner of the Clintonian Third Way, putting money back into the ailing health and education systems, negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, helping to halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the bloodshed in Sierra Leone—will be forever marked by his willingness to join hands with America at a time when it was not leading and listening simultaneously but boring implacably forward on its own. By the summer of 2007, when Blair finally stepped down from office, his approval ratings were hovering in the high twenties. Four ministers had resigned over Iraq; when he traveled, he found protesters carrying placards reading BLIAR. And before the war even started, his critics—in Parliament, in the press, on the street—began referring to him by a horribly trivializing moniker, one that clings to him to this day: “Bush’s poodle.
Yale, the following day. There are those in Britain who say that Blair’s presence here in New Haven—he’s teaching a course on faith and globalization, the subjects that most preoccupy him in his political afterlife—is a form of exile. But if that’s the case, he hardly seems to be experiencing it as such. As he settles into another small room at the president’s house to chat with a group of Irish journalists about the Good Friday Agreement (also the subject of today’s class), there’s no sense of dislocation or bitterness. He seems relaxed, reveling in his gifts as a communicator, untroubled by his controversial legacy. “I remember flying into Belfast for a meeting,” Blair tells them. “And Sinn Féin had just invited the Palestinians to town.”
The journalists are looking on, smiling. They’re waiting. Blair’s pretty great with an anecdote. “And they’d put up the Palestinian flag,” he continues.
He takes a sip of tea. Tea is ubiquitous in this place when he’s around. “And going back to the airport the next morning—how they got hold of these things I don’t know—but the Unionists had gotten … Israeli flags.” The journalists double up in laughter. He continues merrily along, channeling the reasoning of the Unionists: “Right! Now we know where they stand, the state of Israel is our adopted state…”
For Blair, perhaps the hardest impression for him to erase in the aftermath of the Iraq War is that he is, to use the language of Bush, a divider, rather than a consensus-seeking diplomat. But his negotiating prowess, and his powers of persuasion, were precisely what he was known for before March 2003. He sees conflict in clear, rational terms; when looking at global problems, he’s nimble at isolating common themes. One of his favorites, a leitmotif in many of his discussions—especially about the Middle East, where he’s currently the special envoy for the so-called Quartet (Russia, the U.S., the U.N., and the E.U.)—is that having an agreed-on method for solving a problem is more important than having a shared vision of the solution. In his view, it’s this crucial distinction that explains why there’s peace in Northern Ireland today but not between Israel and the Palestinians, even though both parties in the latter conflict have a shared vision of two states. “I have this conversation with Al Gore, actually,” Blair later tells me, as we ride to the heart of the Yale campus. “He believes that where there’s a will there’s a way on climate change. I believe that’s true, but where there’s a way there’s also a will.”
All of which raises a crucial question: If Blair believes so strongly that the means is more important than the end, why did he choose to invade Iraq when it was clear that the American government had only an end in mind and no plan for managing the country?
In the U.K., the reasons for Blair’s participation in the Iraq War were the source of endless hypothesizing. Some ran toward the psychologically crude—he’s a compulsive ingratiator, the type who thrills to friendships with the powerful (which would explain his warm relations not just with Bush but with Italy’s lunatic par excellence, Silvio Berlusconi). Some were much more generous, hewing to a simpler narrative of pragmatism and Realpolitik: Blair regarded Saddam Hussein as a genuine menace, and he thought that engaging a powerful country like America to depose him was better in this globally interdependent age than letting our country run rampant on its own. (His mistake was in overestimating the competence of the Bush administration.) And this generous interpretation hardly seems a stretch. Long before he was discussing Iraq with George W. Bush, the subject of how to contain Saddam frequently dominated Blair’s foreign-policy discussions with Bill Clinton, and in March 2003, Blair’s position on the Iraq War was no different from, say, that of both of New York’s Democratic senators, or John Kerry, or John Edwards, or Joe Biden. Like most liberal hawks, he made the case for war in the language of human rights, highlighting the moral urgency of ridding the world of a sociopathic tyrant who ignored the United Nations, gassed his own people, and collected—or so it appeared, anyway—weapons of mass destruction. (He too has since had to rebuff claims that British intelligence was, in the words of an anonymous official to the BBC, “sexed up” in order to make the case for war.)
The difference is that most liberal supporters of the Iraq War have since expressed deep regret over their decision. Blair has not. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, Blair has shown none of the agonizing of previous leaders who supported bloody, unwieldy wars. Lyndon B. Johnson was so tormented by Vietnam one could argue it killed him; Menachem Begin fell into a depression over Lebanon. Even George W. Bush finally looks like he’s capitulated to the strains of higher office, such as he experienced them—his features are haggard, his hair is gray, he’s more checked-out than even his usual level of disengagement. Blair, on the other hand, looks positively youthful, a wholesome picture of serenity and fine health: His trademark smile stretches easily across his face; his blue eyes twinkle; during these two days at Yale, he sports a golden tan (whether it’s from a long weekend of writing his memoirs in the Caribbean or from spending so much time in the Middle East isn’t clear). And whenever he is asked about the war, he shows few traces of remorse. “When I’m out in the Middle East now,” Blair tells me, “I don’t think the region would be more stable if Saddam and his two sons were still running around.”
This may be true, I say, as many people do—this entire conversation is one he’s had hundreds of times before—but some half a million more people might be alive.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to ask who killed them.” This is another part of Blair’s argument, one he’s forever repeating: that the extremists sowing havoc in Iraq right now are the same stripe of fundamentalist warriors who’ve sown havoc across the globe, from Kabul to Mumbai. Which is true enough, but neglects to address the staggering number of Iraqi casualties who died not from terrorism but from a barely contained civil war. “There’s also a lot of people who died and who would have died under Saddam,” he continues. “The arguments are that he would have kept a check on Iran, but if you remember, there were a million casualties in the Iran-Iraq War. I mean, he invaded Kuwait. So I’m not sure he was ever much of a check.”
And this analysis is right, too, so far as it goes. But it’s a highly clinical analysis, long on rhetoric and abstraction, two forms with which Blair is quite comfortable, and short on introspection, let alone emotion.
I ask if Iraq has compromised his effectiveness as a Middle East envoy. “To be honest, I’ve never felt it was a real disabler,” he says. “The Palestinians understand that unless you can be someone who can also approach the Israelis, you can’t actually do anything for them.”
Does he still talk to George W. Bush?
“Yeah, of course I keep in touch with him,” he says. “I’m not a fair-weather friend. I say this to people all the time, even liberal people who cannot believe I can possibly like George W. Bush.”
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.”
Campbell also points out it’s hardly uncommon for former world leaders to live or spend time abroad (she splits her time between the U.S. and France). Sticking around their own countries can appear unseemly if they’ve lost and antagonizing to their successors if they’ve left on their own terms, and Blair famously had a tense relationship with Brown; surely it’s easier to steer clear of him if he’s at Mory’s in New Haven than Pont de la Tour in London. But it’s still safe to say that America is a more comfortable fit for him right now than his homeland. “Be honest—are you yet another American journalist onto a fawning profile of Tony Blair?” demands Philippe Sands, a barrister and professor of law at University College London, when I phone him. Sands was one of the co-founders of Matrix Chambers, a firm specializing in constitutional and international law, with Cherie Booth Blair, in 2000. He is also the author of the book Lawless World, which is fiercely critical of her husband. “Let’s be clear,” he continues. “For the worship in America, there’s disdain in Britain. When there was some talk that there was going to be some sort of Tony Blair Institute for International Relations at the London School of Economics, people just killed it, because it was such a joke—as someone said to me, it would have been like the Saddam Hussein Institute for Human Rights.”
He pauses, reconsiders. “I mean, to give a balanced view, he did something no previous Labor leader had done,” says Sands. “He won three elections, and that is, by any standard, a remarkable achievement. He put quite a lot of money into primary and secondary schools and the National Health Service. He gave British people the sense they were still relevant on a global stage. And Northern Ireland and Kosovo were also positive.”
Which sounds like quite a long list, actually, a modern-day version of Monty Python’s what-have-the-Romans-ever-done-for-us bit in Life of Brian (“The Aqueduct … and sanitation … and the roads…”). But Sands points out that Blair’s domestic achievements, even in the beginning of his tenure, when he had a huge parliamentary majority behind him, were small and incremental, not profound and transformative. He was too cautious, too poll-driven, just like his counterpart across the Atlantic, Bill Clinton, and he revealed a curious obsession with cozying up to big money. “When I was in the United States a week after the presidential election,” says Sands, “I was asked by a member of Obama’s transition team what they could learn from Tony Blair’s first-term failures.”
I tell him what Blair told me: He believed Obama should pursue an agenda that unifies the world. “Well, that’s just it,” says Sands. “I’d have said Obama should address the issues he cares most about.”
When British prime ministers leave office, they generally don’t have the same profile or perks as former American presidents. They’re asked to leave at once, for one thing—imagine if Bush had been asked to leave the White House on November 5!—and their annual stipends are low, just £84,000, or roughly $130,000 per year. (In 2007, taxpayers paid $386,000 more than that for Bill Clinton’s Harlem rent alone.) The day Blair left office, a government car took him to Buckingham Palace, to formally tender his resignation to the queen, and then to the train station. That was that. He carried his own bag aboard the train back to his Trimdon home. For the next ten months, his family and a handful of advisers helped him plan his next steps. One of the first things they had to do was teach him how to use e-mail.
But Blair, a mere 55, is now hewing as close to an American model of post-political life—Clinton’s specifically—as any former European leader ever has, and his support for the Iraq War hardly seems to be getting in his way. His memoir, to be published by Random House, earned him a reported $9 million advance; he flies hither and yon to speak, reportedly making up to $500,000 per engagement. And ultimately, Blair, like Clinton, hopes to relax into foundation work. The smaller charity he founded, the Tony Blair Sports Foundation, is a modest effort, dedicated to improving the health of those in the northeast of the U.K., where he’s from. (“Whenever he goes back, it’s fantastic,” says Ruth Turner, Blair’s former director of government relations. “He wears a track suit all day.”) But in the long run, the project that will occupy most of his time, he says, and that he hopes will leave a lasting legacy, is his interfaith work at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, dedicated to spotlighting the good that religion can do as the world knits together, and giving material support to already-successful faith groups that fight poverty and disease.
“In some sense, his interfaith work is the same attempt to do to faith what he did for social democracy,” says Matthew Taylor, Blair’s former chief strategy adviser. “Faith has given itself a bad name, and it has to turn outwards, talking to people besides its own flock, so to speak—just like the Labor Party did.”
Which is, of course, a noble goal. But what does that mean in practical terms? How does one give this idea legs? Blair emphasizes the tangible goals of the foundation, like helping religious groups dedicated to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals to end poverty (it currently works with Malaria No More and Interfaith Youth Core to distribute mosquito nets, for instance). But there are quite a few organizations that already do that. Blair argues that his role as Middle East envoy is also an extension of his commitment to religious reconciliation. (“If you achieve something in the Middle East,” he says, “you are giving it legs.”) But his Iraq legacy could clearly limit his effectiveness in the region.
In the end, says Blair, he hopes to give religious reconciliation a platform and profile, and he believes strongly in fighting zealotry, no matter where it is. But in this way, Blair’s reasons for launching his faith foundation start to seem like his reasons for going into Iraq—defined by, if not trapped in, abstract ideals.
Which is not to say that faith isn’t extremely meaningful to Blair. It was faith, in fact, that lured him into politics: As an undergraduate at Oxford, he became beguiled by the Scottish moral philosopher John MacMurray, who believed the path to spiritual fulfillment was through helping others. His interest in faith is ecumenical, intellectual. He travels with a Koran as well as a Bible, often pointing out to Christian audiences that Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet. Though he never believed his personal views had any place in the public square—his family pastor from Sedgefield, Father John Caden, recently told me, “He was very much against abortion, but his conscience never allowed him to force others into his line of thinking”—he was steadfast in his practice. While in office, he always insisted on going to church on Sundays, wherever he was, and whenever possible.
There are those in Britain who say that Tony Blair’s presence in America is a form of exile. But he shows no signs of dislocation or bitterness.
It’s hard to convey how unusual this level of religiosity was from a British public official—and, by extension, what an unusual choice Blair’s interfaith foundation is as a post-political project. In his lectures, Blair is fond of noting that only 30 percent of all Europeans consider religion an important part of their lives, compared with over 60 percent of all Americans and 90 percent of those living in Muslim countries. Blair’s own father was an atheist. Whenever I discussed Blair’s faith with M.P.’s or former aides, they invariably said the same thing Taylor did: “His faith is a complete mystery to me—but that’s the nature of faith, isn’t it?” A number of them, and friends too, went so far as to discourage him from starting a faith foundation, even though he’d stepped down from public life. While he was in office, any discussion of religion was strictly forbidden: In 2003, when David Margolick asked Blair about his faith for a story in Vanity Fair, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s colorful communications man, famously cut in before he could answer: “We don’t do God.”
“Look, you can make the case extremely convincingly for why religion is an absolutely terrible thing, and you’ll be right in every single respect,” says Turner, now the chief executive of Blair’s faith foundation. “Except for the fact that it’s not only like that,” she says, “and anyway, it’s not going to go away.” (As she was saying this, it occurred to me that the two blockbuster books about atheism of the last couple of years, God Is Not Great and The God Delusion, were by two Brits, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, respectively.)
Shortly after Blair stepped down from office, he finally converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith of his wife and his four children. This conversion was surely something he couldn’t have done while he was still in office; it would have been endlessly parsed by the public and the press (especially in a country where Catholics still can’t ascend the throne). After class at Yale one day, I ask if he’s relieved to be talking about faith openly now.
“Absolutely,” he says. “First of all, in our political culture … talking about religion is not a good idea”—he waves his hand in dismissal—“and secondly, it can distract. People start talking about your religious faith when they should be talking about your health-care policy. And I’d been interested in the interfaith notion for years, even prior to September the 11th.”
With whom, I ask, does he discuss matters of faith, other than Cherie?
“Actually,” he says, “what’s interesting is I’ve spoken to several European leaders—I won’t name them—who I didn’t really think were religious at all, and was rather surprised. They know I’ve started this foundation. And they’ll say, ‘That’s really interesting, because you know,’”—and here he lowers his voice a bit—“‘I am actually a practicing Christian.’” Turner adds that prominent business executives have told him the same thing.
Blair’s opening lecture at Yale. His students love him. They say he’s easygoing, schmoozy. Before class starts, he introduces himself to everyone by name; during the break, he will linger and continue chatting with students who are having a debate.
“I would identify three aspects to faith when we talk about it as an objective force,” he says. “One is that faith can become a means of self-identity: This defines my culture; this defines my political attitude.” One can intuitively understand this statement in the context of wars with religious components: I’m Sunni, and you’re Shia; I’m Catholic, and you’re Protestant.
“A second aspect,” he says, “is that it’s just part of my tradition: ‘I grew up in a certain type of society that was defined by my faith.’” My father’s father’s father practiced this faith, in other words, and that’s why I’m a Catholic/Hindu/Jew.
“And then there is a third way,” he says, “faith as spiritual awakening: faith as it defines my values and beliefs, not in a cultural sense but in a personal sense.”
And this final aspect of faith, if you think about it, best describes Tony Blair’s. His faith is personally and deeply felt, something he’s studied and thought hard about, something that’s quietly animated his life choices and provided a code of values to live by. The second aspect doesn’t describe him—he hardly had a faith tradition in his family if his father was an atheist—nor does the first: Faith couldn’t have distinguished his political identity if he couldn’t even talk about it when he was in politics.
George W. Bush may also experience faith as spiritual, a force that defines his values and beliefs. We should grant him that. But faith absolutely distinguishes him politically. Though he may never have said outright that he’s the leader of a Christian nation, he reportedly told Palestinian leaders that he believed God told him to end the tyranny in Iraq, and he has described, now infamously, the war on terror as “a crusade.”
“I call it ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ religion,” says Miroslav Volf, Blair’s co-teacher at Yale this past semester. “‘Thin’ is a cultural resource that provides a canopy over who we are, and it functions to legitimize, to sacralize, what we would have done in any case. Whereas a ‘thick’ religiosity has commitment, a sense of values, a sense of historical depth. And my theory,” he says, “is that when you have a thinning out of religion, it’s more likely to promote violence.”
Both Blair and Bush took their nations to war in Iraq. And we’ll never know how, or if, their faiths played a role in making their decisions. Blair chafes whenever anyone suggests it did, noting that outsiders can choose to interpret all choices made by a believer through the prism of his faith, even if other principles were in fact guiding the way. “The reasons for the conflict,” he told me, “were the reasons that were given.”
But at the very least, Blair’s analysis does show how two very different kinds of politicians who call themselves Christians can get to the same place. Blair believes in just wars. It was he, ultimately, who convinced Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo and halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians. “You can put it this way,” says Volf. “Blair is standing at the center of faith, and he’s asking, ‘How can this faith and the good of that faith be socially promoted?’ Whereas Bush stands almost at the boundary of the faith, meaning, ‘How do I defend from incursion from the outside?’”
It’s this distinction that perhaps explains why so many of us, myself included, still have affection for Tony Blair, and manage to see him as different from George W. Bush. But if God is the ultimate judge, will He factor in good intentions, when so many lives were lost in Iraq? For now, Blair believes he did the right thing, and as a leader he was obliged to make a choice. So he continues to explain that decision to us with articulate precision, just as he continues, with CinemaScope vision and a thousand-watt smile, to explain the wide array of forces now shaping the world. But how he’ll move through that world—at cruising altitude or with his long legs planted firmly on the ground—will be something to watch in the years ahead, just as it will with Obama, whose high-flown oratory now needs earthbound translation. Bush will vanish without a trace, and good riddance to him. But Blair will not. If he figures out how to make real amends—to contribute something to the world that goes beyond the lovely pageantry of words and ideas—he may, at long last, have found the true Third Way.