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British Prime Minister Blair to Step Down After Decade in Office

May 10, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: From the White House to Congress, Tony Blair won awards and accolades in the U.S. for being the number-one ally in the war on terror.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: In the end, it is not our power alone that will defeat this evil. Our ultimate weapon is not our guns, but our beliefs.

TOM BEARDEN: But the applause in Washington turned to catcalls in Britain, where newspapers commonly labeled him “Bush’s poodle.” Yet, as the Iraq war dragged into its fourth year and British casualties mounted, Blair never wavered in his support of the U.S. and his stance against terrorists.

TONY BLAIR: The mission that we’re engaged in at the moment, which is a struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and terrorism and sectarianism on the other. And it’s a noble mission, and it’s the right mission, and it’s important for our world that it succeeds.

TOM BEARDEN: Blair’s current low standing in British public opinion polls stands in sharp contrast to the hope and optimism that swept the then-43-year-old Labour leader to the pinnacle of power in 1997. Young and enthusiastic, he was the first British prime minister born after World War II and after the years of rationing and economic privation that followed that war.

As leader of a new Labour Party, he helped it shed much of its socialist ideology, as well as its habit of losing four straight national elections. With a massive majority in the House of Commons, he pushed through constitutional changes, giving more self-government to Scotland and Wales, and he helped negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Accords that ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland.

TONY BLAIR: Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.

TOM BEARDEN: While raising spending for health care and education, New Labour maintained many of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives. Britain’s economic and job growth have far outpaced most of its stagnant continental European neighbors.

The prime minister also showed he was able to match his emotions to the moment; that was especially apparent after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

TONY BLAIR: She was the people’s princess, and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.

TOM BEARDEN: Abroad, the prime minister showed his readiness to use force if necessary to rid the world of tyrants.

TONY BLAIR: We either act or we don’t, and the person responsible for every single piece of misery and pain inflicted in this conflict is Milosevic.

TOM BEARDEN: In a 1999 interview with Jim Lehrer, he pushed back against President Bill Clinton’s resistance to send ground troops into the Kosovo war.

TONY BLAIR: We always anticipated using ground forces in order to go in and police a settlement. But what again we’ve said for a significant period of time is that we plan and have all options under review.

TOM BEARDEN: Those convictions rang with more certainty immediately after 9/11, as he appeared nine days after the attacks alongside President Bush in Washington.

TONY BLAIR: I believe we have to go on fighting terrorism as long as it takes, because what happened on the 11th of September was, of course, a brutal and horrific attack on America, but it was a demonstration of what these people are capable of in any part of the world.

TOM BEARDEN: But while most of the world, including Britain, supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Blair was a lonelier figure in Europe when it came to backing President Bush on Iraq. Britain ultimately sent 46,000 troops to Iraq in 2003; nearly 150 British soldiers have been killed since then.

Other major European leaders, notably President Jacques Chirac of France, either refused to join the coalition in the first place or dropped out as the war went on.

TONY BLAIR: To retreat in the face of this threat would be a catastrophe.

TOM BEARDEN: Two years after the invasion of Iraq, terrorists struck London on July 7, 2005. Fifty-two people were killed and hundreds more injured in suicide attacks on the transit system. At the time, Blair was attending the annual G-8 conference in Scotland.

TONY BLAIR: All of our countries have suffered from the impact of terrorism. Those responsible have no respect for human life.

TOM BEARDEN: After three straight election landslides, Blair’s popularity ratings plunged in his final term, as scandals set in and dissent grew within his own party.

TONY BLAIR: I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor, but sometimes it is the price of leadership, and it is the cost of conviction.

TOM BEARDEN: Blair has served 10 years in office, a record for a modern prime minister, bested only by Margaret Thatcher. His likely successor is one-time Labour Party rival and now chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown.

Domestic and foreign policy record

Robin Niblett
Chatham House
I think he's managed to right himself somewhat, at least in legacy terms, post-Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes our story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: We get three views of Tony Blair, his record and legacy.

Christopher Meyer was appointed ambassador to the U.S. by Blair in 1997 and served until the onset of the Iraq war in 2003. He wrote a memoir of that time called "D.C. Confidential."

Robin Niblett is director of Chatham House, a British foreign policy think-tank. Previously, he was with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

And Tom Baldwin covered Blair for a decade as a political reporter in Britain, before becoming chief of the Washington bureau of the Times of London two years ago.

Welcome, gentlemen, to all of you.

Tom Baldwin, Tony Blair, smart, charismatic, many gifts. What did he, on balance, achieve with those gifts in these 10 years?

TOM BALDWIN, Chief, Washington Bureau, Times of London: You're right, he did seem to have it all in 1997. He's achieved an enormous amount domestically. He's achieved peace in Northern Ireland, a sectarian dispute for which there has been a settlement. He has changed the center of gravity in British politics, I think, leftward, so now there's no longer a debate about whether public services can work but a debate about how they can work. He has achieved stable economic growth.

And then, on the other flip side, you've got foreign policy. One, you've got Kosovo. You've got Sierra Leone. You've got Afghanistan, which were successful conflicts. You have seen Iraq just overshadow everything. And even if it's not fair, that, I'm afraid, is going to be his legacy.

MARGARET WARNER: Christopher Meyer, what kind of a grade would you give him for these 10 years?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER, Former British Ambassador to United States: Well, I think he did pretty well, until we got to Iraq. He spotted trouble in Sierra Leone in West Africa, moved very quickly, and dealt with a terrible situation where human rights were being abused in a terrible way.

I think, to be fair, he saw what was at stake more rapidly than Bill Clinton did when we had the crisis with Milosevic and Kosovo. And, of course, when George Bush became president, he was four-square with him after 9/11 in dealing with al-Qaida and Afghanistan.

The train wreck came with Iraq. And when you look at the whole of Tony Blair's foreign policy record, it will be Iraq that overshadows everything else and the earlier, but smaller successes he had in places like Kosovo and in Sierra Leone.

MARGARET WARNER: Sir Robin Niblett, do you share that view, quite a substantial record of achievement until Iraq?

ROBIN NIBLETT, Chatham House: Yes, a substantial record probably until Iraq, but on the other hand I think he's managed to right himself somewhat, at least in legacy terms, post-Iraq.

I think Tony Blair has left Britain in a position in which it has been defining some of the most important global challenges that we're likely to face in the future. His focus under the G-8 presidency on Africa and on climate change have given Britain a sort of post-imperial ability to act as a catalyst and a convena for new ideas.

And I think, on Iran, we should not underestimate the role that the U.K. has played, along with Germany and France, by taking a lead on the negotiations with Iran over their nuclear capability. But he's prevented, perhaps, a return of the mistakes that took place on Iraq.

Blair's belief in the Iraq war

Tom Baldwin
The Times (London)
You also have to ask, I think, whether it's better that he tried to make the Iraq war better, which is what I believe he did, or whether it was better just to sit on the sidelines and sneer, which is what others did.

MARGARET WARNER: So if the big puzzle here is Iraq -- and, Tom Baldwin, back to you, you covered him for such a long time -- he went to war in Iraq against the will of the majority of the British people, even at the time. And it turned into, at least as far as the British people were concerned, a complete disaster.

Why did he do it? I mean, was it that he was "Bush's poodle," as his critics said, or did he share that sense of mission that, in fact, Saddam Hussein had to be gotten rid of?

TOM BALDWIN: I think he believed it was right. Before the Iraq war, the conventional wisdom about Blair was that he was somehow Flotsam and Jetsam on the tide of public opinion, a man who's all spin, no substance. On Iraq, it was absolutely counterintuitive. He did something in defiance of public opinion, spun it actually rather badly, incoherently, dysfunctionally, so many different reasons to go to war.

MARGARET WARNER: Despite being a great salesman, you're saying he wasn't really effective with that?

TOM BALDWIN: There were too many different reasons at too many different times. But in the end, he did it because he thought it was right.

Now, of course, you have to separate motives and judgments and whether, in the end, he got a result. But you also have to ask, I think, whether it's better that he tried to make the Iraq war better, which is what I believe he did, or whether it was better just to sit on the sidelines and sneer, which is what others did.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, you were close to it, as well. What is your assessment about why he did this?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, you've got to give Blair the credit for spotting Iraq as a problem, Saddam Hussein as a problem, very early on in his premiership. He made a speech earlier in 1998, while Bill Clinton was still president of the United States, in which he basically said Saddam Hussein is a challenge to the international community and, one way or another, we're going to have to deal with this man.

So I have never subscribed to the notion that Tony Blair was simply George W. Bush's "poodle," as a lot of people have accused him of being. He was a true believer from very, very early on.

And after 9/11 and the horrors that you experienced in the United States, I think Tony Blair had no difficulty in accepting the argument -- which was, of course, propounded by your president -- that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were all cut from the same cloth.

And so it wasn't a question of your president dragging the British prime minister along; I think the prime minister was already there. Where it all went wrong was in planning for the aftermath, for after the removal of Saddam.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you were still ambassador then. And in your book, you seem to fault Tony Blair for not using his closeness to President Bush to challenge this administration, to do a better job of planning. Explain what your critique is there.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, I think there was ambiguity from very early 2002 about what the British conditions were for going with George Bush into Iraq, if it came to war. And I think that the essential problem was -- and Blair would consider this to be a virtue in his relationship with the president -- that, from the beginning, he said to the president, "Whatever you decide to do, I am with you." He hugged him close.

So the question then arose in Washington, were there any British conditions at all for going with the United States into Iraq, if that was the way it was going to come out? And, in the end, although there were things that we really wanted, such as unwinding the terrible intifada, the bloodbath between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and going through the United Nations in a particular way, in the end, the British conditions weren't conditions.

They melted away in the intense wish of Tony Blair to be with George Bush, come what may. So there was leverage there to be used, but he didn't use it. It's not to say he didn't have an influence on what happened, but there was more he could have done, and he chose not to do it.

The moniker "Bush's poodle"

Christopher Meyer
Former Ambassador, Great Britain
If you look at the Blair legacy today, the very day when he's formally confirmed his retirement, Iraq overhangs everything else, all the achievements abroad, and such achievements, as they were, domestically, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Robin Niblett, then, does that make the moniker "Bush's poodle," in fact, in some ways a legitimate one?

ROBIN NIBLETT: I think, over Iraq, over the initial decision to go to war and stand along the side of the United States, I don't think you can use the "poodle" moniker.

I think, like Christopher Meyer said, when you look at 9/11 in particular, in the British perspective, the fear was the United States would head off on its own punitive track and, in essence, that Europe and the United States might become separated in how they perceived the fight against terrorism.

And I think Blair really saw it as his duty to try and hold the two sides together. So he was committed as much to the transatlantic relationship as he was to views on Iraq.

I think my biggest criticism would be, on the one hand, that he bought so much into a global sense that all terrorism was the same, that Iraq was the same as Afghanistan, that al-Qaida somehow and the terrorists there were the same as the insurgents, or are the same as the insurgents who are operating in Iraq.

And he's still using this blended language, which most Europeans -- and I'd say the Brits, as well -- do not sympathize with or really agree with. So I think that was a fundamental problem, that problem of analysis.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Baldwin, isn't it also the case -- I mean, I certainly remember when John Major was prime minister. He, too, was accused of being way too pliant toward the United States. Is this a constant refrain, at least on the British side, about the special relationship and the lengths to which London goes to maintain it?

TOM BALDWIN: I think it's been a fairly steady refrain since Suez there's been ups and downs, of course, since then, but as Sir Christopher said, it is about hugging them close. I think, in Blair's case, he hugged Bush so close it squeezed out perhaps other parts of his legacy.

I mean, Northern Ireland, you look at Blair's record there. Bush went to Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, and explicitly promised Blair that he would devote as much time, effort and energy to the Middle East peace process as Blair had done to the Northern Ireland peace process. And Blair's still waiting. I'm surprised he's not more angry at having been let down by the president on that.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that you don't think Blair got enough out of the special relationship for Britain?

TOM BALDWIN: I don't think he was setting conditions. I don't think he expected a payment back. He was hoping to take Bush on a journey, to open Bush up to wider issues rather than just the need for revenge, the need to solve the problem in the Middle East, to drain the marshes of the water.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Ambassador, on balance, again, what is -- I mean, Iraq will eventually go away. In fact, the British are already pulling back substantially there. What do you think is his lasting legacy, at least in the medium term, and how history will judge him?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Margaret, this is an incredibly difficult question to answer at this point in time, at this stage. But you have to say that, almost certainly, it is going to be the Iraq war.

Right now, the Iraq war is for Tony Blair a huge net negative. The only question to be asked is whether five years out from now, 10 years out from now, if things should get better in Iraq, if we find there is a new settlement in the Middle East as a whole -- and I wouldn't like to make that prediction -- then maybe, a decade out from now, we might look back and say, "Well, Blair and Bush, they had it right after all, and we were all too impatient and not prepared to take the pain and the sweat necessary to get things right."

But having said that, it's very hard to see that this will actually happen. And if you look at the Blair legacy today, the very day when he's formally confirmed his retirement, Iraq overhangs everything else, all the achievements abroad, and such achievements, as they were, domestically, as well.

And, in a sense, Blair -- he's a dominant figure in British politics, he still is, but to a very large extent, also, I think he's a tragic figure, and he's tragic because of Iraq.

A "double legacy"

Tom Baldwin
The Times (London)
He offered an idealistic vision of saving the world, and that was an example of his reach, once again, exceeding his grasp.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Robin Niblett, even though he polls very low in terms of his popularity, the Guardian had a poll in which the British were asked, "Has he been good? Has this decade been good for Britain?" And nearly 50 percent said yes. What does that tell you?

ROBIN NIBLETT: Well, I think it tells you he's got a double legacy. His domestic legacy could prove to be strong. He's changed the nature of British politics. I think somebody claimed that his biggest legacy is the fact that somebody like David Cameron is the candidate for the Conservative Party position.

So I think he's changed the domestic situation quite importantly, and he's also strengthened the U.K. economically. He's got them back into the middle of Europe as one of the wealthier countries in Europe. There's a greater feeling of confidence in the U.K., in terms of Britain's situation.

Internationally, however, my concern is that the legacy of Iraq ultimately will be partly an effect on the legacy of the U.S.-U.K. relationship. It will remain special in many tactical levels -- intelligence cooperation, nuclear cooperation, counterterrorism cooperation -- but at a strategic level, I think many people in the British political establishment, not just at a popular level, think that the U.S. works on a different calculus of risks and rewards in a post-9/11 world, a dangerous outside world, than the U.K. does, where it sees more the war on terrorism, for example, or the struggle against terrorism as a battle for legitimacy, something they feel much closer to European thinking on.

I think there's been a shift in the U.S.-U.K. relationship as a result of Iraq, as a result of Tony Blair's policy with George Bush, that will persist.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, Tom Baldwin, briefly, what are your final thoughts as his lasting legacy?

TOM BALDWIN: As a practical leader of the Labour Party, he secured victory for three successive general elections by offering a compromise with Thatcherism. In foreign policy, he offered the opposite. He offered an idealistic vision of saving the world, and that was an example of his reach, once again, exceeding his grasp.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. Tom Baldwin, Robin Niblett, Christopher Meyer, thank you all.