Blair, Bush: the power to persuade
WASHINGTON AND LONDON — They seem an unlikely pair: One is a Clintonian "third way" pragmatist, the other a die-hard conservative. One has an intellectual passion for ideas, the other is more simple and direct. One is acutely attuned to international sensibilities, the other has adopted a more "take it or leave it" tone to the rest of the world.
But in their joint conviction on the need to depose Saddam Hussein, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush share important elements in their governing styles: Both have held fast to their belief - rooted in deep religious faith - that they are doing the right thing, and both have shown meticulous care in nurturing domestic public support.
"They've taken great pains with [opinion]," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "They're very concerned with losing the public."
Each has reaped the rewards. Though President Bush's war support is higher (around 70 percent), Prime Minister Blair's newfound pro-war majority in British polls seems the greater achievement, as he has climbed up from single digits. To be sure, the rally-behind-the-troops effect is at play in both countries, buoyed by successes on the ground. But analysts also see the power of personal persuasion at play.
"There is a kind of admiration for Blair as someone who does what he thinks is right," says Prof. Wyn Grant of Warwick University. "In the past, he has been accused of ... doing what is popular."
The key moment for Blair was a speech to Parliament on the eve of war. Some observers called it the best speech by a prime minister in living memory. A third of lawmakers were antiwar, many of them from Blair's own Labour Party. And even if his impassioned oratory did not win them round, it made it very clear that he believed he was right and would not be shaken in his course. Since then, the prime minister has played a deft hand.
Blair has also focused intensely on the aftermath of war, knowing that his party will look more kindly on him if he secures a clear UN role for rebuilding Iraq and uses the Iraq outcome to push for lasting peace in the Middle East. His shuttle diplomacy has thus incorporated not only President Bush, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. To those who would call him Bush's poodle or the MP for Texas North, he could point to the location and outcome of this week's Belfast summit as a sign of influence.
"If anybody has influence on George W. Bush, it's Tony Blair," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, the think tank of the New Democrats and "third way" politics. "There's a deep well of affection for Blair in this country... The image of Tony Blair in Congress right after 9/11 is indelible."
For both leaders, the involvement in Iraq has represented a venue of activism less constrained than the domestic arena, where legislators are in the thick of debate. In Washington, Bush skillfully maneuvered Congress into approving possible war with Iraq back in October, in the heat of the 2002 midterm campaign, and most Bush opponents have been lying low since. But Bush faces a challenge from his own party on his economic package, and may well not win the full tax cut he proposed.
In London, like previous prime ministers for a generation, Blair has been attracted to the international scene because it holds greater opportunity for political payback than the awkward, highly charged domestic scene, says Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
With his righthand man, Gordon Brown, wielding effective control over the domestic agenda, Blair has been casting around for a wider, more presidential role.
"It's terribly easy for British prime ministers who have come up through mundane domestic politics to get sucked into international politics," Professor Dunleavy says.
Professor Grant says the Iraq war is all part of the ideological makeup of a prime minister who espouses deep Christian beliefs and strikes a high moral tone.
"He just thinks it was the right thing to do," he says. "He wasn't worried about the political consequences, and was prepared to take some damage. It's a consequence of having the most religious prime minister in Number 10 since Gladstone. He does the things that he thinks are right."
Blair himself has said pretty much the same thing.
"I've never claimed to have a monopoly of wisdom," he said in a recent newspaper interview, "but one thing I've learned in this job is you should always try to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Let the day-to-day judgments come and go. Be prepared to be judged by history."
But if religious belief underpins the international activism of both leaders - the Methodist Bush and the Anglican Blair - their domestic contexts are strikingly different. Most Americans seem comfortable with Bush's regular use of religious language, while in England, Blair's faith stays largely private.
"England is an aggressively secular country," says George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A & M. He recalls a "horrible moment" recently when a British reporter asked with disdain whether Blair had prayed with Bush. "I don't remember the answer," he says. "It was the question, and the way it was asked, that made an unfortunate impression."