Britain's Blair leads roundup of support for US

For the past three weeks, Tony Blair has pushed for action against the Taliban.

Eleven years ago, as then-President Bush contemplated the enormity of expelling the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, Britain's then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously urged him not to "go wobbly."

He didn't, and Mrs. Thatcher's successor, Tony Blair, is now repaying the new President Bush in spades as America's firmest and most outspoken ally in the war against terrorism.

Rarely has the "special relationship" that binds London and Washington been so special, and rarely has Mr. Blair thrived so forcefully as over the past three weeks of preparations for retaliation against those held responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"A cautious, risk-averse, hesitant domestic politician has turned into a decisive and energetic world statesman," says John Rentoul, a biographer of the British leader.

On the world stage, fighting enemies such as Osama bin Laden or former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Blair is not constrained by his natural urge to seek consensus. At the same time, Blair - a devout Christian - is moved by a real sense of moral outrage, Mr. Rentoul suggests. When Serb forces began committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Blair risked his political life to rally international opinion - especially in Washington - behind a bombing campaign to expel Mr. Milosevic's forces from Kosovo. "He took risks that he did not need to, and that can only be because he believed he was right," says Rentoul. "He mixes megalomania and absolute moral certainty."

Blair has carried that banner of moral certainty all over the world in the past three weeks, from Washington, where he visited President Bush days after the Sept. 11 attacks; around Europe, where he rallied French and German leaders and met Russian President Vladimir Putin; and to Pakistan, where he encouraged President Pervez Musharraf to stand by America against Islamabad's former ally, the Taliban.

Sounding determined, fluent, and convinced, Blair has "come to see himself not as the leader of a medium-sized country in Europe, but as the leader of a global alliance of good against evil," commented the influential British weekly, The Economist.

From Day One, Blair pledged that Britain stood "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States, and he has carried the British public with him. More than 70 percent support the way he has handled himself in the current crisis, according to a recent poll.

Britain was the only US ally whose forces took part in the first phase of the attack against Taliban and other targets on Sunday: A nuclear submarine in the Indian ocean fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at a training camp allegedly belonging to Mr. bin Laden's forces.

London has put its armed forces at Washington's disposal: 23,000 British soldiers and 24 warships are in and around Oman, at the end of the Persian Gulf, for long-planned exercises, which makes them easy to deploy to the current operations.

Britain is in a better position than other European nations to work closely with the US: Their armed forces have often trained together, they have often shared intelligence, and they have fought together in the Balkans.

Also, the British public has long felt that British and American interests are intertwined in a way that mainland European nations are not. And Blair appears to have decided that showing total support for Washington is the best way of influencing American decisions.

He is free to show that total support because he faces no opposition at home. With a huge majority in the House of Commons, and the opposition Conservative Party pledging its support in time of war, the British prime minister enjoys a freedom that other European leaders - constrained by coalition partners or hesitant voters - do not.

Nonetheless, European leaders also stood foursquare behind the air strikes yesterday, offering as much military support as might be asked of them.

Five AWACS, airplanes equipped with early-warning systems, will fly to the US, freeing up US planes for use in the current operations in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson announced. "There is no lack of enthusiasm for this campaign ... against a common enemy," he added.

Besides Britain, whose naval forces launched missiles at Afghanistan on Sunday, France appears most ready to commit troops. "It's being discussed now with our American partner," French Defense Minister Alain Richard told French radio yesterday. "It could be special forces, air facilities, and added naval support," Mr. Richard said. Paris put "no limitation" on the extent of military assistance it was offering, he added, hinting that French special forces were already on the ground in Afghanistan helping to pinpoint targets.

The European Union also expressed its full backing of Washington. Belgium, which currently holds the EU presidency, expressed the organization's "entire solidarity with the United States, as well as with the United Kingdom and all the other countries engaged in these operations."

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