Britons snort at Blair's award

President Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom to Blair, whose legacy is clouded by the Iraq war.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Old pals: President George W. Bush bestowed America's highest civilian honor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday.
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Normally, an international statesman's acceptance of an award from an ally is cause for pride in their home nation.

Tony Blair's receipt of America's highest civilian award at the White House Tuesday, though, was greeted with a chorus of disapproval in Britain, where anger at the former prime minister's decision to join the invasion of Iraq has not abated.

Many also questioned why Mr. Blair, who is now a Middle East envoy for the "Quartet" – the US, European Union, United Nations, and Russia – had time to go to Washington to collect the Presidential Medal of Freedom while the Israeli offensive was still under way in Gaza.

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The award was called "sad and fitting" by Clare Short, a former member of Blair's Cabinet who resigned over Iraq. National newspaper headlines in Britain proclaimed: "The Spoils of war: parting gift for Bush's brother in arms" and "Poodle of honour."

Observers now widely claim Blair has been a failure in the envoy role, which was taken on after he stepped down as Britain's premier in June 2007, alongside activities ranging from lecturing on the lucrative international circuit to advising two major financial institutions, JPMorgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services.

Although his responsibility as envoy is largely limited to helping rebuild the Palestinian economy and institutions, rather than brokering a peace deal, since the start of the Gaza crisis Blair has been overshadowed by the peace initiatives of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. More damagingly, voices on the Palestinian side talk of Blair's irrelevance, including Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, who said this week: "If I am honest, I would say that his mission was a failure."

John Kampfner, the author of "Blair's Wars," says that the former prime minister's influence in the region has largely "collapsed" as a result of his role in the Iraq war, which "defines" his legacy.

"With his domestic agenda he ended up achieving very little and taking very few risks," Mr. Kampfer says. "By contrast, his foreign policy was defined by five wars in his first six years in office."

Two of those wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have claimed the lives of more than 300 British troops. Blair has himself admitted that the "blowback" from global terrorism has been fierce, and for many, not worth it.

Some of the most damning verdicts on Blair's legacy have come from the world of fictional satire, including a book by a bestselling novelist depicting a former prime minister who has been formally charged with war crimes.

At the same time, some nostalgia for the Blair years remains.

When the Labour Party he once led was in the doldrums last year after a stinging loss in an election for a vacant parliamentary seat, a poll in September identified the former prime minister as the only figure who could save the party from a catastrophic defeat by the opposition Conservatives – even with Blair's help, though, the poll predicted Labour would have lost.

Blair's role in helping to broker a peace accord in Northern Ireland is also widely respected by allies and former political opponents.

Nevertheless, the image of Blair as a lackey of President Bush remains an often-repeated caricature in newspaper cartoons.

Indeed, a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Blair in 2003 went uncollected because, according to Sir David Manning, the former British ambassador to Washington, Blair felt unable to accept the honor because it would reinforce a perception that he was "some sort of poodle."

According to Kampfner, Blair's close relationship with Mr. Bush came about because Blair took the long-held British maxim that the country must have a special relationship with the US to a "logical extreme." This is the same relationship, observers say, that has produced such notable pairs as Roosevelt and Churchill, and Thatcher and Reagan.

"Blair got on very well with Clinton and made himself get on with Bush. Very quickly it became genuine. They began to feed of their exuberance in their great messianic projects."

Anthony Seldon, Blair's official biographer, argues that his fortunes intertwined with those of the White House because of his high "morally based" ambitions on the world stage, and a recognition that his influence in world affairs paled in comparison with that of the Oval office.

Mr. Seldon maintains that every prime minister goes through "a dip" after they leave office, irrespective of their achievements, before their stock rises again.

In Blair's case this could happen sooner rather than later. Amid the latest Pan-European crisis over the supply of Russian gas or the lack of it, calls for the creation of a European Union president are back on the agenda, with the Briton a strong favorite for the job.

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