Blair's flair as referee

Bush wants the soon-to-be former prime minister as troubleshooter in the Middle East.

When Tony Blair leaves his London office next week, will his next stop be Jerusalem? George Bush wants the long-serving British premier as international envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea is more than a recognition of Mr. Blair's loyalty to America; it attests to a record of reconciling the irreconcilable.

Blair leaves after 10 years of British leadership with dismal public approval at home – largely because of the Iraq war. But the war overshadows a legacy of adeptly bridging differences of all sorts.

For starters, he cajoled his leftist party, Labour, to the political center, winning three elections. He later united a detached monarchy with a British public that was grieving over Princess Diana's death. His mediating skills were in full swing when he persuaded bitter enemies in Northern Ireland to seek peace in a new government.

One of Blair's core beliefs is that conflicts can be resolved, often by building personal trust and persuading people to see the greater interest in coming together. He patiently applied these ideas to Northern Ireland, which, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, encompassed religious and territorial disputes, inflamed by self-perpetuating, retaliatory violence.

Blair applied his "third-way" thinking to this seemingly intractable problem. He balanced use of the full force of the law against Republican terrorists with an opening of the door to them politically. And he never minimized the injustices felt by both sides.

In the Economist magazine last month, Blair reflected on lessons learned at 10 Downing Street. Speaking of the need to counter extremist Islam with support for moderate and true Islam, he wrote, "Here is where I have always felt that the normal politics of left and right are a hindrance. The trouble is that the right is correct on the need to stand firm militarily and in support of freedom; and the left is correct on the need for justice.

"The assault on the ideas behind terrorism won't work unless it is seen to be motivated and stirred by a commitment to justice. That is why trying to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute is so important – not only for its own sake, but because the absence of peace causes suffering that is exploited by this extremism."

The excerpt has a moral tone to it, another characteristic of the Blair years. His commitment to open trade, reversing global warming, and turning back poverty in Africa were not "simply a game of interests but also of beliefs, things we stand for and fight for," he wrote. The same held true for his military interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where he aimed to relieve oppression – although not always with complete success.

This values-driven foreign policy joins Blair to Mr. Bush and helps to explain Bush's overture. So does the US president's trust in this friend of America who has been a steadfast ally even as the British public sneered at him as Bush's yes man.

That's an unbalanced view of the relationship. Blair has disagreed with Bush on such issues as climate change and his languishing on the Middle East peace process – yet quietly nudged him along. Should Blair accept the envoy role, expect more disagreements – and more quiet nudging. Perhaps, indeed, that's what Bush is hoping for.

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