British Prime Minsiter Tony Blair's near-fatal political strategy inadvertently but inevitably exposed him to the dilemma of his special relationship with US President George W. Bush.
Blair had attempted to wage a campaign that skirted Iraq -- which British voters cited as the overriding issue for their disillusionment, with about only one-third willing to admit that they trusted their prime minister. But his invitation to the voters to vent their frustration at the beginning of the campaign -- the so-called masochism strategy -- naturally brought their anger over Iraq to the surface. Once he had raised the level of political toxicity, Blair simply froze.
Blair had achieved the extraordinary feat of persuading the Labour party to transform itself into a party that wins power. But this time his ability to persuade was exhausted. When confronted with the criticism that he had summoned, he offered no argument. Instead, he pushed voters away with a defiant exasperation that provoked their resistance as he challenged them to judge him. Why wouldn't Blair persuade? Was it just weariness, or ambivalence?
Blair knew that arguing Iraq would blot out his effort to discuss his program for a third term. But his tongue was tied for other reasons as well. As the head of government, he could not speak of his disagreements with Bush. Out of loyalty to an ally, the national interest and protocol, he couldn't acknowledge that he had urged alternative policies on Bush.
Blair never mentioned how he had wrung a commitment (honored or not) out of Bush to restart the Middle East peace process. He did not discuss how the Bush administration had systematically ignored the British representative in Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock.
He did not note that Downing Street was spitting blood over the depredations visited on it by the bullying John Bolton and the rest of the neo-conservative cabal. He did not allude to his national security team's consternation over Condoleezza Rice's incompetence. He did not reveal the many ways he had supported former secretary of state Colin Powell in his struggles with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Blair's stalwart refusal to be transparent about his own good faith and positive actions contributed to his image as dishonest and furtive.
Blair's interlocutor within the Bush administration, Powell, paralleled his quandary, and they were bonded, exploited and tarnished together. Of course, if Blair had not joined with Bush, he would have opened a large window of opportunity for the Tories. But, like Powell, Blair convinced himself that going along in public was essential to his efforts to influence Bush behind closed doors. Like Powell, every time Blair made a slight gain, he reinforced his delusion of influence. Both overvalued their leverage.
Blair knew that Bush had no practical post-invasion scenario, other than the neo-conservative fantasy of a flower-strewn parade.
"There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action," according to a memo from Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, to the prime minister on July 23, 2002. After that, Powell presented the state department's 17-volume Future of Iraq prospectus, but was ruthlessly shoved aside; Blair, cornered, felt compelled to go to war without a plan. Thus regime change was botched from the start. It was a subject he could hardly discuss in the campaign. He was perpetually cornered.
British prime ministers have misjudged US presidents to their detriment before: Churchill and Roosevelt over the fate of the British empire, Eden and Eisenhower over Suez. The special relationship has been fraught with prime ministers intent on maintaining its veneer. Rumsfeld crudely drew attention to the inherently unbalanced nature of this alliance on the eve of the Iraq War, when he declared that British military forces were unnecessary -- "there are workarounds."
In his relationship with Bush, Blair apparently misread the outward signs of US culture and interpreted them through British eyes. Bush can be so amiable and informal dressed in blue jeans that his manner can be mistaken for openness and co-operation, when it conceals a particular type of American class superiority and indifference.
Bush, after all, seems so friendly compared with the glowering Cheney, who clawed his way upward. It's not easy for someone who's never traveled in the US to grasp the evolution of the Bush family from north-east patricians into Texas Tories, and the dissolution of the New England character along the way, especially its sense of responsibility, duty and humility.
Bush's amiability towards Blair merely demonstrates his acceptance of the prime minister into his fraternity, his private club. But even if Blair got Bush exactly right in every nuance, the outcome remains the same. Gordon Brown, Blair's heir apparent, and Bush are a car crash waiting to happen. Bush has an instinctive revulsion for serious intellectuals who have little capacity for the locker-room banter that is his mode of condescension.
The underlying events that produced this election result provide a harsh, cautionary and unsettling lesson not only for Blair. Prime ministers to come will take the story of Blair's embrace of a powerful ally's mendacity and Blair's subsequent loss of trust as a warning. Future US presidents will be regarded with underlying suspicion far into the future. By chastening Blair, the British voters have applied the only brake they have on Bush's foreign policy. But the damage done to the US-UK relationship could have calculable long-term negative consequences for the world.
Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to president Bill Clinton and author of The Clinton Wars.
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