ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — Once upon a time the British had a prime minister named Tony Blair. He was an extraordinary man from the left of politics who somehow managed to forge a broad and durable consensus. Smart and personable, he possessed instincts that allowed him to rise above the political pygmies surrounding him. Unlike previous leaders of the Labour Party, he had an uncanny ability to win elections. But then he went to Washington and got chummy with George Bush.
Mr. Blair made British politics boring. For six years, he won every argument, in the process making his opponents look incompetent. The only excitement came in watching the opposition Conservatives struggle to find a leader to challenge him. But after he joined the Bush-sponsored effort to topple Saddam Hussein, Blair's dominance began to erode. His decision to go to war caused a few resignations from his government, the most prominent being Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, who has since become an outspoken critic. For the first time in six years, opinion polls have actually given the Conservatives a slender lead. Suddenly, they seem a credible opposition, capable of winning the next election (which must take place before June 2006). Their support has risen entirely because of disappointment with Blair.
Americans might find this confusing, especially since Blair's decline coincides precisely with his astonishing rise in popularity in the US. His overt demonstrations of friendship after 9/11 made him a hit among Americans. Then, during the deliberations preceding the war in Iraq, his principled multilateralism appealed to those worried by Mr. Bush's recklessness. Many found it refreshing to find a politician who was young, handsome, brave, personable, and undeniably intelligent. One group of admirers even launched a "Blair for President" campaign.
Some Americans nevertheless found the Blair phenomenon confusing. Why, they wondered, had an unashamed British liberal, who was still good friends with the Clintons, hitched his wagon to the Bush locomotive?
American confusion was nothing compared to British bewilderment. For many Britons, it seemed that something funny had happened to their prime minister on his way to Washington. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had been political soulmates, but Labour prime ministers were not supposed to be friendly with Republican presidents. Nor was Labour, traditionally the more pacific party, supposed to conduct such an aggressive foreign policy.
Despite appearances, there is method to Blair's madness. His policy can be understood if we appreciate that Iraq is not the central issue, but rather merely a means by which to achieve wider international goals.
Blair is far too ambitious a politician to be satisfied with running his small country well. He wants to be a statesman, but therein lies the problem. Forging an international role is made more difficult by the fact that the British face in three directions. One group, mainly on the left, feel part of Europe. A second group, mainly on the right, feel affinity with America. A third group, the truly weird, espouse an exclusivist nationalism inspired by nostalgic imperial fantasies.
Blair believes he can ignore the third group, while pursuing a fusion of the other two. He thinks that, in this multilateral world, it is pointless for Britain to presume that she can make a choice whether to face eastward or westward. He wants Britain instead to be a bridge between Europe and America, a project that, at the same time, will allow the British to enjoy status in excess of their actual power.
The political analyst Timothy Garton Ash has rather cleverly dubbed this the "Blair Bridge Project." The idea seems sensible in theory but in practice has proved as horrifying as its filmic allusion. It worked reasonably well when Bill Clinton was president, since he and Blair agreed on so many things. But agreement is not the same as equality; Britain will always be a junior partner. Her inferiority was revealed when Bush became president and Blair was forced to sign on to policies that he did not instinctively support.
Witness Iraq. For all Blair insists that he did the right thing, he nevertheless hoped that Bush would go about matters differently. Blair's willingness to tag along was based on one great gamble, namely that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would be found. If they had been discovered, his wisdom would have been confirmed, and the bridge would have been strengthened.
Which brings us to the events of last week, which have shaken British politics to its core. The Butler Committee has made public its conclusions of a five-month investigation into the process by which Britain went to war. The conclusions are highly embarrassing, perhaps fatally so, for Blair. While no one individual is condemned outright, the report judges that the Blair-inspired dossier on Iraqi WMDs, published in September 2002, stretched the "outer limits" of the truth. In other words, the desire to go to war inspired a distorted case for war.
Lord Butler's findings will not destroy Blair. Only the British voters can do that. It remains possible that he will survive this crisis and win the next election, for he remains the most formidable politician in British politics. But the British will never fully trust him again. If he is defeated it will be because, in his efforts to woo the Americans, he somehow neglected the folks back home.
• Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.