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The Unshakable Tony Blair

James Naughtie, a lead anchor on BBC Radio 4's "Today Show," is author of "The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency" (Public Affairs, 2004).

Tony Blair has said, “I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam.” Even at this late date in the war, Blair remains the warrior prime minister -- bruised, aged with the scars of battle perhaps, but convinced he was right.

Americans are often puzzled by Blair, but so are the British. He is a leader who remains an enigma even after seven years in power. Though he is the most written-about prime minister of recent times, he still carries a cloak of mystery with him. It conceals, above all, the story of his alliance with President Bush, which is the most unlikely -- and probably the most powerful -- transatlantic partnership since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill first spoke of a “special relationship” during World War II.

No British leader can be the equal of an American president; he or she will always be the junior partner. But Blair’s moral support for Bush after Sept. 11 and his unwavering belief that the invasion of Iraq was justified even without specific U.N. authorization were extraordinarily potent. They split Europe and NATO, threw the U.N. Security Council into turmoil and shook the kaleidoscope of the Middle East. Blair buttressed the president of a divided country in making the case for a war that he could claim -- and still is claiming -- had international legitimacy.

Blair’s critics at home, where his political reputation has gone through a mincing machine in the last year, ask what he has got in return from Bush for his loyalty. In practical political terms, very little. He still seems likely to win a third term the next election but with a much lower parliamentary majority than before, and with the stain of the unpopular war still on him. The answer lies deep in his character.

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After the Clinton years, in which he’d become a Democratic president’s best overseas friend, he was hugely relieved (and surprised) to discover that he and Bush shared a personal chemistry. They shared a natural informality and an instinctive rather than an ideological approach to politics, and found they could relax together. At their first Camp David meeting soon after the inauguration, Blair talked of his anxieties about Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. By the summer, he was feeling a kinship.

On Sept. 11, 2001, an electric shock transformed the relationship. It was as if it had been forged in a furnace and was now unbreakable.

Through everything that followed, Blair was determined to preserve that relationship. His critics -- some of them in his own Cabinet -- believed that he sacrificed judgment for it. When Blair’s hopes of a negotiated solution to the Iraq crisis through the United Nations faltered and died in the winter 2002, part of his mind was already reconciled to war. In conversation, he comes back again and again to 9/11. It was the moment leaders had to think the unthinkable. He lost friends, ministers and many voters by the way he aligned himself with Bush.

Blair seems gregarious and a glad-hander by nature, happy in crowds and a leader who has an instinct for the theatrics of politics. Yet, the characteristic that defines him most clearly is his individualism in politics: Underneath, he is a loner. He has always been the cat who walks alone.

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Blair grew up the son of a provincial lawyer and attended Oxford, where he showed little interest in politics. It was not until he was in his 20s and a lawyer that he developed an interest in Labor Party politics, leading to his successful candidacy for a parliamentary seat in 1983. He became prime minister in 1997 with no experience in ministerial office -- something no other prime minister, with one minor exception, had done in 200 years.

Blair’s story is an epigram of the age of moral politics. His conviction took him to war with a president of whom his party -- and a majority of the British public -- was, and remain, intensely suspicious. Despite worsening violence, even chaos, in Iraq he appears content with his judgment. Even in a country that remembers the Margaret Thatcher years, Blair’s single-mindedness is remarkable.

For Americans too he is notable. Without him could the case for war have been so easily made? His critics say he was Bush’s lap dog. As so often with Blair, the criticism underestimates him. Bush does not value him for his smile alone, but for a loyalty that matters.


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