It was a sweet moment for Tony Blair. The British prime minister, derided by critics in his own country as "Bush's poodle" but acclaimed by many in America as a British bulldog, went before Congress last week to receive the acclaim that was his due.
His self-deprecating humor brought guffaws. But it was his words of passion that brought his congressional audience to its feet for 17 standing ovations in the warmest expression of approval this politically battered British leader has enjoyed in many months.
In his own land, Mr. Blair is badly wounded as a result of his consistent support for the war in Iraq and the US administration that prosecuted it. But, remarkably for a Labour prime minister whose ideology might seem closer to that of Democrats than Republicans, he has stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush, and sent British soldiers to fight and die with valor in Iraq alongside American troops.
The passion that motivates him was evident in his address to Congress. He was passionate in his belief that the Iraq war was right. "If we are wrong," he reasoned, "we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering." Even as he spoke, coalition troops were uncovering more mass graves that seem to validate his belief. But "if our critics are wrong," added Blair, "if we are right, as I believe with every fiber of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership. That is something history will not forgive."
He was strong in his commitment to the Anglo-American alliance. "My nation," he said, "takes enormous pride in our alliance and great affection in our common bond. We will be with you."
He was serious about America's role in Europe. "Europe," he warned, "must take on and defeat the anti-Americanism that sometimes passes for its political discourse." But "America must ... show that this is a partnership, built on persuasion, not command."
The full force of his passion, however, was reserved for a ringing defense of liberty. His voice trembling with emotion, he declared: "We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind ... to be free. Free to raise a family in love and hope; free to earn a living and be rewarded by your efforts; free not to bend your knee to any man in fear; free to be you, so long as being you does not impair the freedom of others. That's what we're fighting for, and it's a battle worth fighting."
Blair is slender and boyish, lacking the bulky presence and stentorian cadence of Winston Churchill who, perhaps more than any other British prime minister, has held American audiences spellbound. But there is a Churchillian ring about his words as he, like Churchill, berates tyranny and passionately defends the freedom it denies.
Though William Ewart Gladstone may have been the greatest British prime minister of the 19th century, Churchill was clearly the greatest of the 20th. Yet Churchill's greatness derived from his tenacious defense against - and successful offense against - Nazi Germany in World War II. Throughout much of a political career, which stretched more than half a century, he was controversial, unloved, and in the political wilderness. It is sometimes forgotten that his early warnings against Hitler's menace fell on unappreciative British ears, and his cabinet was shaky even as he argued for Britain's taking the war to Germany.
Blair, too, has faced questioning and hostility from his countrymen as he has supported the war in Iraq and pledged his support to the American effort. After World War II, Britain tossed Churchill out of power for a while, and a similar fate may confront Blair.
Warm applause and recognition from Congress are nice, but Blair deserves still greater US consideration. The Bush administration should heed his advice in a number of areas: working with Europe, spreading the workload of reconstruction in Iraq, pressuring Israelis and Palestinians to end the violent madness and make peace in the Middle East.
In an earlier speech, Blair declared: "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor. But sometimes it is the price of leadership and cost of conviction."
Tony Blair is paying a heavy price for his convictions about the war in Iraq and his loyalty to America. His sacrifice is something Americans should not easily forget.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.