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Leader of the Free World? Or Crusader?

Some say that Tony Blair has done a better job than George W. Bush of making the case for this war as a war for democracy and human rights, and even refer to Blair as "the leader of the free world." What does Tony Blair represent? What kind of a figure is he for divided liberals? He has been described as a "Christian liberal interventionist." What about this almost missionary aspect of Blair's foreign policy? His religious faith is often seen as something he has in common with Bush. Is Blair a crusader?

photo of berman

- Paul Berman
A political and cultural critic whose writings appear in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications, he is the author of Terror and Liberalism (2003) and A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996).

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Blair has done an infinitely better job than Bush at describing the problem and explaining the reasons for war. Bush's inarticulateness, his brutish demeanor, his lack of education, his uncultured air, his obvious inexperience in world affairs, his lack of ability to hear or understand the arguments of his critics, his air of intolerance -- all of this has proved to be a calamity. Virtually any other American president would have succeeded in securing a much higher degree of support for the present war. Bush alone has turned the world against the United States.

I admire Blair tremendously. I do regard him as the leader of the free world. I think that Blair has put too much stress on the one issue of weapons of mass destruction. I think the larger issue is ideological. Terrible weapons pose terrible dangers; but even box cutters can pose terrible dangers. That is why it is important to speak about the paranoid and apocalyptic nature of the totalitarian mindset, and not just about weapons. Blair doesn't put much emphasis on the ideological issue, though -- definitely a pity, in my eyes.

Still, when Bush says something, I don't believe a word of it. If I happen to agree with Bush on something, I regard my own agreement as sheer coincidence. But I listen to Blair with respect.

You ask if Blair is a "crusader," meaning, I think, a zealot for the reform of other people -- which is to say, someone dangerous and meddlesome. I look at Blair's record in the Balkans and elsewhere and, in my judgment, it is a fairly good record, by modern standards. I see no reason to look down our noses at him or to bedeck him with patronizing expressions and mild contempt. You ask if his religious faith motivates him. I have no idea. I do know that a religious faith is not in the slightest bit necessary to feel the impulses that evidently drive his most important foreign policies. I think that a sturdy adhesion to liberal values is enough.

photo of rieff

- David Rieff
An American writer and foreign-policy analyst currently at the American Academy in Berlin, he is the author most recently of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002) and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995).

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One thing that strikes me about Blair is, I've always said the biggest difference between Europe and the United States is that Europe is a post-Christian continent and we are a Christian country. And if you think of Mitterand and Kohl, and for that matter John Major and Mrs. Thatcher, and Schröder and Berlusconi, and if you went down the list of major European leaders, you'd be hard pressed to find a real believer among any of them. Whereas in our tradition, you know, the believers are a dime a dozen. And Blair's a believer.

So, in that sense I do believe that Blair's affinity for President Bush is real. I think they're two devout Christians, who are sincere believers, and whose faith is a central element of their careers, of their essences. ... They're men of faith. I'm actually not surprised at all that Blair, who was thought to be the great friend of Bill Clinton, seems to get along if not better then at least as well with President Bush. And the Christian view of the world is a view of conversion. It's a view of redemption. It sees the world as a place where people need to be saved.

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-  Timothy Garton Ash
A fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, he is the author of several books on Central and Eastern Europe in the late-20th century, including History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (2000), The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (1990).

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I think that there clearly is a missionary element to Blair. He looks like a preacher man. And the preachiness is something which alienates a good many people in cynical old Europe, and indeed alienates people in British politics too. I think that actually the presence of religion in the public rhetoric of the Bush administration is something which is a problem for many Europeans, but also particularly for people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And I think that probably Blair is a tad more sensitive in that respect. You don't hear him invoking God quite as familiarly as President Bush. ...

[And yet] I'm tempted to say [that Blair represents] the last best hope of liberal internationalism. I think he is a genuine liberal, much more than he is a socialist. I think he's a Gladstonian liberal in international affairs, almost more than Gladstone was. I think he genuinely believes the West should try consistently to promote respect for human rights, pluralism, democracy. And I think he's actually more of a liberal interventionist than I am, certainly much more of a consistent liberal interventionist than George W. Bush is.

His problem is that the people who are now actually driving for intervention -- namely the Bush administration -- are not classic Gladstonian liberal internationalists like him. They have a very different agenda. And it's rather difficult to be the leader of the free world when you are a rather small cat walking beside a very large tiger.

But I do generally believe that he's the best liberal internationalist we've got. And his problem is that he's got Donald Rumsfeld on one side of him, and Jacques Chirac on the other.

And yet, there is such animosity, such intense hostility toward Blair from so many within his own party. There's a sense that something tragic has occurred.

Well, it has.

He's almost a Shakespearean figure at this point.

Well, certainly, you can see it on his face, can't you? ...

For a lot of people, his position is genuinely tragic, and I count myself among them, in the sense that I think he is attempting to do absolutely the right thing in attempting to keep America and Europe together. But he finds himself like a man standing on two boats, each of which are being rowed in opposite directions. And that is the tragedy of his position, that he is ending up doing the splits, but doing the splits in a good cause. I wouldn't describe that as a mistake. I mean, I think he was trying to do the right thing. ...

There's a great irony in his position, which is that here is a man who came to power resolved to be the most European prime minister yet, resolved to sort out Britain's relationship with Europe, and here he is, six years later, arm in arm with the United States, and at loggerheads with much of Europe. Not all of Europe, but much of Europe. So to many British pro-Europeans, he represents a great disappointment, a disappointment of their best hopes. And much of the criticism of him comes from pro-Europeans of the left, and equally, in much of continental Europe there is great disillusionment with Blair.

Does Blair, in some ways, think more like an American than most of his countrymen?

Well, I would say that the occupants of Number 10 Downing Street have quite often been remarkably close to the United States. One thinks of Thatcher. One thinks of Churchill, obviously. And Blair is another. And of course, the Blairites were fascinated by Clinton and how he'd come back to power there. They're fascinated by programs like welfare for work. They know America well.

And also, of course, he's religious in a way that many, many European leaders no longer are. So that's another, if you like, quote/unquote "American" aspect of him.

On the other hand, in many respects, he's a European. I mean, in his respect for international law, his desire to go through the United Nations, his emphasis on aid, on the Third World, his support for the welfare state, for social justice, and his approach to Israel and Palestine, there's a long list of issues on which he is actually European. So he's not just the American in Europe. He's a man between.



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posted april 3, 2003

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