Blair echoes another voice in the political wilderness

If there is a hero who deserves special accolades in the campaign to rid Iraq of its tyrant and his terrible weapons, it is Tony Blair.

As unlikely as it might seem for a British Labor prime minister, he has stood sturdily with George Bush, although mightily assailed by his fellow political leftists and confronted by massive street demonstrations in London.

When the British want to honor those American cousins they particularly respect, they award them honorary knighthoods or give them fancy "gongs," the slangy word for medals. America cannot bestow knighthoods, but when the Iraqi problem is behind us, it should certainly do something special for Mr. Blair. If things have gone well, he may yet become a hero in his own land. Victory in war tends to cloud the memories of those who earlier feared its consequences. Of course, if the campaign in Iraq is a disaster, Blair may also be looking for a new job.

The reason for which he deserves respect is not that he hitched his wagon to President Bush's personal political star. It is that he supported America in its time of challenge, and that he shored up the Anglo-American alliance when the faltering French and the jittery Germans were unhelpful, and disruptively cleaving Europe's unity.

The days of the sprawling British Empire are long gone. The Royal Navy no longer rules the waves. Alongside the awesome US military machine, Britain's military contribution is hardly spectacular. But it is generally there when America calls, as it has been through two world wars and numerous other campaigns from Kosovo to the Gulf War in which American GI's and British "Tommies" have supported each other and fought together against common foes.

It is not so much the British military contribution that binds America and Britain together. It is tradition, history, shared values, and moral concerns.

Had he chosen, Blair could have turned his back on these values and taken an easier political road. But as the marchers clamored and waved their anti-American placards, he declared: "If there are half a million on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for. If there are a million, that is still less than the number of people who died in the wars he started."

Then, uttering words with almost a Churchillian ring to them, he said: "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor. But sometimes it is the price of leadership and cost of conviction."

It may be unseemly to compare Blair with Churchill, who in his time strode the world stage like a colossus. But back in the 1930s, Churchill was a voice crying in the political wilderness against the mounting aggression of fascist dictators. He no doubt would sympathize with Blair's uphill battle in convincing some Britons of the "moral case" for war against Saddam Hussein.

If Blair's stand has taken the kind of guts that Churchill would admire, it is also a realistic appraisal of the new world we find ourselves in and the role of American supremacy in it. Shorn of empires and military power, some of the Old World nations are adjusting better than others. Blair seeks to ally Britain with America. However, for France, President Chirac seems to be seeking Gallic leadership of an Old World cabal that would offset and challenge US leadership. Such ambitions are probably delusionary in their grandeur. When the chips are down, even Russia's President Putin recognizes that American primacy is a fact of life to be accepted and worked with rather than denied.

In the meantime, France has created a rift in the Western alliance over Iraq that is unhelpful. It threatens the standing of NATO, the UN Security Council, and the European Union. Testiness is abroad. If French is the traditional language of diplomacy, there was little evidence of it in the disdainful tongue-lashing Mr. Chirac gave last week to Eastern European nations that dared to support the US position.

In America there is darkly unfair humor about the French - "How many Frenchmen does it take to protect France? Nobody knows. They've never tried."

As I lunched last week with a former Israeli cabinet minister, he said a few words that froze my dessert fork on its way to my lips: "In their desire for peace, some people have distorted the distinction between good and evil."

That's a distinction that clearly motivates Tony Blair.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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