Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Editorial: Tony Blair has work to finish

Tony Blair, who arrives in New Zealand this afternoon, is in some ways the most misunderstood figure on the international stage.

It is nine years since he led the British Labour Party back to power, having reconciled it to monetarism and a market economy. Britain was booming and the "New Labour" mission was to see that the fruit was spread more equitably, mainly through better social services.

The Blair Government’s attempts at state service reform have not been notably successful, but Britain is still booming. Mr Blair’s more significant role has been in foreign affairs.

His name will forever be linked with that of George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The Prime Minister and President never looked like natural companions, in style, personality or political persuasion, but Mr Blair saw it as his personal duty to support the United States through thick and thin.

In that respect, too, he was keeping faith with policy set by those in Downing St before him. Britain has learned through two World Wars that its security depends on the United States. The greatest fear of the Foreign Office has been American isolationism and British policy has been aimed above all at keeping the US engaged with the world, especially with Europe.

Arguably, that mission ceased for Britain on September 11, 2001. Since that day there has seemed no danger that Washington would ever again turn its back on events outside. Quite the reverse; the danger has been that in reaction to the first acts of terrorism from abroad the Bush Administration reserved the right to engage potential enemies anywhere in the world it believed them to be, with no need of international endorsement.

But Britain’s new concern seemed to be of US isolation in action. As the President issued ultimatums to Saddam Hussein, Mr Blair did his utmost to elicit international support.

He convinced Mr Bush to seek a resolution from the United Nations Security Council and worked hard to bring about some sort of accord between Washington and European Governments. In the end he could not avert a rift in the Western alliance, but he could not be faulted for trying.

When diplomacy had run its course Mr Blair was faced with a decision: to join the US in an unprovoked invasion of an Arab country or to uphold a semblance of international law. He decided it was more important that the US not be left alone.

Australia and a few other countries followed suit but Britain was the most significant ally. It was Mr Blair more than anyone who enabled the White House to claim it led a "coalition".

The Prime Minister has paid a price for his decision. His Government was re-elected last year with a much reduced majority, and in the expectation that Mr Blair will step down, as he has indicated, before another term is out. It is hard to see how he can escape that undertaking.

He has spent most of his political capital on the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath. His ambitious Chancellor, Gordon Brown, could make the decisive move at any moment. Mr Blair has the look of a lame duck.

He continues to prosecute the war on terror as assiduously as President Bush and that will be his primary message here, as it was in Australia. But here he is welcomed by a Labour Government that took a different view of the Iraq campaign.

Helen Clark might acknowledge the efforts he made to maintain the mantle of international law and discuss what more might be done now to deal with the mess the coalition has left in Iraq and the resentment still festering in Muslim societies.

Mr Blair probably feels his international responsibilities are far from finished and he is right.

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