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blair and bush - a special relationship

He has remained the U.S. president's most steadfast ally in both the war in Iraq and the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Here, in excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews, journalists and individuals close to the British prime minister discuss this personal and strategic alliance -- the two leaders' auspicious first meeting, matters of faith, and Blair's assessment of the fragile American psyche after Sept. 11.


'A Very Good Start'

Former adviser to British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major; Conservative member of the House of Lords

Tony Blair has had from the beginning a very clear idea of the strategic importance for any British prime minister of being [on] close and friendly terms with an American president. Ideologically, of course, he was closer to President Clinton. They had much in common. ... With George Bush, it was a sudden change of gear. And there's always a danger when that happens. ... I think Tony Blair played it ... skillfully and got, early in the new president's tenure, on to good personal terms with him.

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British ambassador to the U.S., 1997-2003

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[Tell us about the first meeting between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Blair.]

... A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic were worried that this relationship wasn't going to work. Blair had got on extremely well with Clinton, [but] here was a new American president, belonging to a different party, after a controversial election. ...

I had met Bush in 1998, when he was governor of Texas and of course I knew Tony Blair very well and I had a hunch that it was going to work out alright. ...

We had flown up to Camp David from Washington, D.C., having seen the vice president, [Dick Cheney], which had been a rather sort of stiff interview. ... We were all in our suits and ties and things, and, of course, as soon as you get to Camp David, you've got to take off your tie, get out of your suits, and put on a kind of regulation chinos and open-necked blue shirt and blazer. So we did that as soon as we got off the helicopters and went to the big lodge at Camp David where the president receives his guests. ... The first thing we did, because we got up there at midday, was go and have lunch. ...

It got off to a very good start, almost from the first syllable uttered. Bush said to Blair, "Welcome to Camp David, Tony. May I call you Tony?" And Blair said, "Well, thank you for this warm welcome, George. May I call you George?" Then the president said [to Blair], without any sort of ceremony or farce or some kind of grandiloquent statement, "What shall we talk about?" ...

My hunch was that there was a kind of no-nonsense quality and informality to the two of them, which would enable them to at least start bonding very, very quickly and that's what happened. We were there for 24 hours and it warmed up rapidly over that very brief period of time. ...

[You weren't worried about the very different political affiliations of these two men?]

Well, there's been a long tradition since the Second World War of party affiliation on each side of the Atlantic not really having a great deal to do with whether the leaders get on or don't get on. ... So I was not looking at the politics of George Bush or the politics of Tony Blair when I had this hunch that, as personalities, they were going to get on together.

As I said at the beginning, I think what helped was an informality, lack of pomposity on both sides, directness. Each side appreciated the frankness of the other, and they, just as personalities, seemed to be getting on. We now know, as time has passed, that the fact that both of them, although [in] different ways, are driven by very strong principles and notions of faith must have helped the two of them get on. But it worked very well.


'People of Strong Religious Conviction'

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Deputy editor, Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)

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[On a personal level, how much did Blair's religious convictions factor into his decision-making?]

I think Blair's entire political behavior has to be linked to his private religious beliefs. He doesn't talk about his religious beliefs very much but they are fundamental to anything and everything that he does. ...

It's certainly true that we have in this alliance of Britain and America an unusual situation, where both the president and the prime minister are people of strong religious conviction. I doubt myself that this is something that they discuss explicitly. It's not really Blair's style to discuss his religious beliefs outside the privacy of his own home and church. Nonetheless, I am sure that in an unspoken way it contributed to a certain affinity between Bush and Blair in that they're both people who in a sense arrive at quite simple conclusions about things; they're men of tremendous moral certainty. ... I'm sure that the fact that they're both religious people, they're people to whom prayer and reading the Gospels matter a great deal, in a way that was probably never articulated, never actually spoken, mattered a great deal.

Former adviser to British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major; Conservative member of the House of Lords

I think it is true to say that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair do share a certain moral certainty about the way the world is going. We saw it with Tony Blair in the case of Kosovo, for instance. He was absolutely persuaded that it was necessary to intervene, even though there was going to be a Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council. He did it basically on humanitarian grounds -- this was good vs. evil. And President Bush clearly has the same feeling in relation to Iraq and in relation to terrorism.

So, yes, this gives them another point in common. Now, one has to be careful here. Morality and diplomacy are not easy bedfellows. One has to be guided very much by national interest, by international law, by a careful balance of alliances and so on. You can't just run a foreign policy on a moral basis. But there's no doubt that the impulse with both of them is strong. And it is what has led to the vigorous prosecution of the war against terrorism, and now the impending war against Iraq. ...

There are many differences between them, too. Mr. Blair is a more sophisticated politician, certainly a more articulated politician, and George Bush of course as president of the United States carries much greater weight internationally. And in a way that pairing is a valuable one. You can say perhaps in the same way Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were. She more articulate, more sophisticated; he carrying the great weight and prestige of the United States. Together they made a great combination. There's something of that in the Blair-Bush relationship.


After Sept. 11 ...

Former adviser to British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major; Conservative member of the House of Lords

... Mr. Blair had an immediate welling up of emotional support for the United States. ... He also understood instinctively the impact on American opinion that this is not just one more terrorist attack. ... In Europe, perhaps we're ... cynical about terrorism. We have been exposed to it over many decades; we have suffered it, never perhaps on the scale of the United States on 9/11, but nevertheless, we have suffered serious terrorist incidents.

Tony Blair knew that for the Americans, this was the end of paradise as it were. ... He understood the emotional need of the United States for support from a close friend and ally and he provided that support -- support not just in the war on terrorism, but support for an adjustment of foreign policy to give priority for dealing with the problems of terrorism, of terrorist states, of dictators with weapons of mass destructions. I think that was the right decision to make, but not every prime minister would have made it.

Deputy editor, Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)

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After 9/11, I think things changed fundamentally. ... The reason for that was that Blair spotted very quickly that there was a need for Britain to act swiftly. And Bush appreciated that and was grateful for it. I think that what had been before a merely polite relationship started to change quite significantly after 9/11.

[Was there a worry at Downing Street about what Bush might do after Sept. 11?]

... There was a sense in Blair's immediate circle that Bush himself was a bit of an unknown quantity as far as foreign policy was concerned. And also the people around him -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and so forth -- were in their view liable to unrestrained action and very fast reaction to what had happened on 9/11. So I think there was a certain degree of anxiety.

That said, I think that anxiety went away quite quickly because the traffic, the telephone calls between Downing Street and the White House was intense in the days after the atrocities. I think that people in Downing Street came very quickly to the conclusion that they might have called this one wrong, in fact, and the people around Bush -- and indeed Bush himself -- were rather restrained, rather statesmen-like figures who were not going to rush into action, who were going to take counsel from around the world, who were very keen to construct a coalition of the willing before they went to war in Afghanistan and elsewhere. ...

[Why do you think that Blair specifically recognized what Bush was trying to do?]

I think that one of the things that distinguishes Blair from other leaders outside America is that he's actually got a great deal of military experience. ... He's fought campaigns in Kosovo, in Afghanistan; he's assisted America in an earlier attack on Iraq, Desert Fox; he fought a short campaign in Sierra Leone. This is actually a prime minister who in a few short years has had a great deal of contact with the military world. Add to that that he's prime minister of Britain, which is a country that has been under various forms of attack from terrorists in Northern Ireland for more than a quarter of a century, and I think that here was someone who understood better perhaps than his European counterparts what the stakes were, what the possibilities were. ...

British ambassador to the U.S., 1997-2003

read the interview

[How did the nature of the Bush/Blair relationship change after Sept. 11?]

... The important point I ought to make before answering that question is to say that, in the period between that first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, up to, say, Sept. 10, Blair and Bush had had a series of meetings. The relationship was warming up nicely as we went along. Sept. 11 was the great accelerator in that relationship. ...

[Blair came to the U.S. on Sept. 20 and sat in for the president's speech before the joint session of Congress. Tell us about that day.]

... We arrived at the White House ... and immediately the president took Blair by the elbow and moved him off into the corner of the room, where we all congregated, and he said, I believe, to the prime minister, "I agree with you that the job in hand is Al Qaeda and Taliban. Iraq, we keep for another day."

Then we went in and had dinner. The discussion over dinner was about dealing with Al Qaeda. That was essentially the thrust of discussion. We then went up to Capitol Hill for the president's speech, the joint session of Congress. The prime minister traveled with the president, which was already a sign of a mark of some intimacy.

Then, I suppose, the climax of the day ... was the president's acknowledgement of Tony Blair in the guests' gallery before his speech. He paid tribute to Tony Blair's solidarity and the support from the British people. I think that was the defining moment of the day. ...

The British-American relationship under Bush and under Blair had moved onto a new level, onto a new plane. Britain had been consecrated as the closest ally, and Blair and Bush were, if you like, two leaders in harness, together with whoever else was going to join them to slay the dragon of international terrorism. ...

I think Blair and Bush have come to the view that you have to deal with Saddam Hussein through very different paths. Blair was prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1997, 1998, when Saddam provoked the first crisis with the inspectors. So Blair has had experience from that time [and] formed a view at that time -- a view which said the international community, one way or another, has got to deal with Saddam Hussein.

President Bush comes into government in January 2001 and is not immediately focused on Iraq from a war fighting point of view, to put it crudely. For Bush, the transforming moment as far as Iraq is concerned is 9/11. ... They have an earlier priority, which is the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But once they're out of the way, more or less, then Iraq comes up front.

As it comes up front, the two lines cross between the way in which Blair has first seized the issue and the way that Bush subsequently [did]. They're not coming from identical positions; they come from positions which intersect. ...



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posted april 3, 2003

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