The American Prime Minister

The other day it was announced that the presidential succession had been changed such that the secretary of homeland security — Tom Ridge — would move from 18th to 8th in line. That’s all well and good and, arguably, Ridge belongs ahead of Gayle Norton and Ann Veneman, the secretaries of interior and agriculture, respectively.

But it still disappoints that there is no loophole that would move Tony Blair onto that list, say, right in front of Dick Cheney.

The British prime minister, for all of his domestic troubles back home in the United Kingdom, remains as valuable an asset as the Bush White House has. He not only agrees with the administration’s post-Sept. 11 foreign policy, he articulates it better than the administration does. He’s not only a hardliner on Iraq and a stonewaller about certain evidentiary matters, he looks good — certainly by Bush standards — doing it. And by so doing, he immeasurably helps the Bushies earn whatever measure of legitimacy they enjoy in international circles.

Even in the midst of the African-uranium fiasco, which could be his political undoing in the UK, Blair didn’t lose his rhetorical touch. Fittingly, it was on display in Washington during his recent whirlwind stop. He was the fourth British prime minister to address Congress, and the first since Margaret Thatcher in 1985. And no one did it better.

After he thanked Congress for its “warm and generous” welcome to the U.S. House Chamber, he then drew a rousing, good-natured, bi-partisan response that would be all but impossible for President Bush to muster these days. “It’s more than I deserve,” deadpanned Blair, “and more than I’m used to quite frankly.”

He certainly didn’t come to grovel over manipulated intelligence. And he begged no one’s forgiveness — save historians. But Blair’s presentation, in part designed to provide Bush political cover on Iraq, was no exercise in allied arrogance.

He didn’t traffick in the “bring ’em on” rhetoric Americans seem increasingly ill at ease with. He exalted “beliefs” over “guns” as “our ultimate weapon.” He spoke of courage in a time of peril and underscored a context greater than yellowcake from Niger — or the politics of the moment. And he continued to put appeasement on notice, as only the antithesis of Neville Chamberlain can.

“If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering,” Blair said. “That is something I am confident history will forgive.

“But if our critics are wrong, 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.”

Ultimately, Bush and Blair will be judged on what they’ve done. They are in fundamental agreement about rooting out terrorism and those it considers menaces to peace- and freedom- loving people everywhere.

Only Blair says it so much better. So much more presidential, if you will. In fact, one half-expected the opening lines to his Congressional speech to be: “My fellow Americans.”

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