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Column: Blair's moment of truth

Last August, well before military action against Iraq seemed inevitable, a poll showed that 54 percent of the British public viewed their prime minister as "Bush's poodle." Just think what that number must be today. The portrayal of Tony Blair as a poodle, a lapdog or whichever canine currently epitomizes spinelessness and blind loyalty is reaching its pinnacle right about now.

The fact of the matter is that Blair's support has nothing to do with American pressure. The poodle argument is used by the European far left to explain away what is a much more complex phenomenon. The truth is that Blair, on the most personal level, ascribes to a profoundly pro-American worldview. He doesn't need President George W. Bush to cajole him into serving as America's junior partner from across the sea. By the time he came to Camp David this past weekend, he was already convinced.

A quote from one of Blair's predecessors in 10 Downing Street sheds some light on the trans-Atlantic relationship. Viscount Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first prime minister, was once assured of political support by a fellow statesman on the condition that his position on issues was the right one. To this, he famously replied: "What I want is men who will support me when I am in the wrong." Like Melbourne, America certainly likes its allies to be reliable, but even the U.K. has not always agreed to set aside its national interests for a common cause. Blair, however, is thoroughly confident that Bush and he are appropriately answering "this call of history," as the president put it in the State of the Union address. Their mutual dependence is a function of a common understanding of their alliance's larger mission.

For his part, Bush undoubtedly realizes that he now needs Blair a lot more than Blair needs him. The reason has very little to do with military preparations underway in the Gulf. While the contributions of HMS Ark Royal and the 1st Armoured Division will be appreciated by Pentagon planners, the United States clearly does not require anyone else's firepower to defeat Saddam's regime. With the exception of overflight and basing rights in the region, the U.S. military is totally capable of winning the looming war on its own.

Bush needs Blair purely as an astute communicator, an outsourced diplomat to provide political cover, twist arms and make deals in Europe's capitals. To be sure, the United Kingdom is not the only European country to support Saddam's removal, even without a second Security Council resolution. Spain and Italy are both on board, if only because their current cabinets share a thoroughly conservative orientation with the Bush administration. Among the smaller EU countries, Portugal and Denmark are in broad agreement with the U.S. position, while new NATO members from Eastern Europe are only too pleased to lend (and loudly proclaim) their support.

Of the EU's big five, Bush already has three on his team. The problem is that the top two - Germany and France - carry vastly more clout in the union than any other members. Donald Rumsfeld's "old Europe" comment notwithstanding, Paris and Berlin are still the driving force behind every substantive decision made by the EU. As the Franco-German lovefest for the 40th anniversary of their friendship treaty showed in January, they are united by their common desire to continue running the union for the foreseeable future. Their joint anti-war stance has at least as much to do with internal EU politics than commercial interests in Iraq or intrinsic continental anti-Americanism.

Germany will likely preside over the Security Council when the decision on war is made, but it does not have the veto. France does. And Blair is the only person who is welcome in the Elysee Palace and possesses the influence, the "good offices," capable of persuading President Jacques Chirac not to block a war resolution. French abstention would be less than desirable from the standpoint of America, which remembers the 15-0 vote in November, but a veto would be disastrous. Russia and China cannot afford to appear obstructionist - that is the price of claiming pretensions to great power status - but France has always a free agent in the Western alliance. If Chirac truly believes that the call to war represents an Anglo-American conspiracy, this is his moment.

At this point in the game, with war all but certain, Blair is in a difficult position. His country, his party and even some members of his own cabinet are counseling patience. Strictly speaking, Blair would carry any war vote in Parliament. A substantial minority of Labour Party MPs is against it, but the remainder and the Conservative opposition would unite to carry such a vote. Nonetheless, for a prime minister who has been accused of obsequiously adhering to the polls, he is staking the defining moment of his career on the steadfast belief that he is right and the majority of Britons are wrong.

The American public does, by and large, support their president on Iraq. They will continue to back him when bombs start flying. That is not the case in Britain. Blair spent the last three months making himself thoroughly unpopular among Labour's base of supporters in the unions, the universities and the liberal press. He will not go to war to bolster his approval ratings, but rather in spite of them.

So then why? We have to go back to Brighton, the scene of the Labour conference, on Oct. 2, 2001. There, in a frighteningly grave speech three weeks after Sept. 11, Blair set out his grand vision of the global community, which he argued "must show as much its capacity for compassion as for force" when confronted with grievous threats to peace and justice. His moral certainty that Iraq represents such a threat, whether right or wrong, is the reason Blair so conscientiously supports the United States. If you think he succumbed to American pressure, then read the Brighton speech. You'll reconsider.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.


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