Once-unassailable Blair sinks in quicksand of Iraq


George W. Bush is not alone.

Tony Blair, who basked in extraordinarily high public approval ratings when he became prime minister of Britain nine years ago, is now the most unpopular Labor Party prime minister in modern times, a Daily Telegraph survey showed last week.

While Bush struggles with an approval rating in the low 30s, only 26 percent of British voters are satisfied with Blair's performance, lower than Prime Minister Harold Wilson's 27 percent rating in May 1968 after devaluation of the pound. Blair has promised that he will step down before the next general election. That might not have been for years. But his departure may come sooner, after weeks in hell for his government.

A bad showing in local elections followed his minister of health being heckled at the Royal College of Nursing, his home secretary admitting to having released a thousand foreign criminals who should have been deported, and his deputy prime minister being caught in a torrid sex scandal with his former secretary. The British tabloids are having a field day.

Blair is a larger-than-life person, and how and when he departs will have an impact on British party politics. But from the vantage point of the outside world, does it make much difference whether Blair stays or goes?

Blair's heir apparent is Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer since 1997. Blair and Brown were the co-founders of New Labor, but they have grown to heartily dislike each other. But it is in the interest of the Labor Party for Brown to be given adequate time to prove himself as prime minister before he has to call new elections. For the first time in a decade, Labor could be facing a serious challenger in David Cameron, the new Conservative Party leader.

Last week's poll showed Labor 6 points behind a resurgent Conservative Party under Cameron. The survey puts the Conservatives at 37 percent, Labor at 31 and the Liberal Democrats at 17.

Domestic policy will not change much after Blair. Brown was the co-architect and co-executor of the New Labor governmental program that largely succeeded in reconciling economic liberalism, financial rigor and social justice. The result has been impressive: higher growth than in most of Europe, lower unemployment and fiscal discipline.

Since 1997, New Labor has seized control of the political high ground; Brown would not abandon it. Cameron also would not greatly change domestic policy. To make the Tories electable, he has embraced most of Blair's domestic policies.

So the real question is: How will Britain reconcile its relationships with America and Europe? Continuity is not an option, because the grand foreign policy synthesis Blair seemed to have achieved early on was wrecked by Iraq.

After Sept. 11, Blair seemed to have succeeded in being both Europe's spokesman and America's best friend. But Blair's grand strategy did not survive Iraq. Blair could not have averted war, nor did he want to.

But key European states like France and Germany opposed action on American terms. The bridge between Europe and America was a bridge too far. Iraq left a weakened trans-Atlantic relationship, a divided Europe and a discredited Blair.

Britain was not able to influence key U.S. decisions over Iraq policy, and British forces are hostage to an increasingly grim Iraqi situation that could be a prelude to full-scale civil war.

The Iraq war has been increasingly unpopular in the Cabinet, in the Labor Party and in the country. After Iraq, the United Kingdom is likely to be wary of becoming involved in U.S. global adventures. Even the Tories, despite their public displays of admiration for U.S. policy, might share that reticence.

Policy toward the EU will prove even harder, but Brown may have an opportunity. Angela Merkel is increasingly confident as German chancellor, and her EU agenda is likely to diverge from that of France and move closer to Britain's.

Blair's dream of the UK as a bridge between Europe and America might have a future. But then again, with the seemingly inexorable rise of Asia and the relative demographic and economic stagnation of Europe, how much will Europe matter?

Steven Philip Kramer is professor of national security studies at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University . This article reflects only his personal views and not those of the U.S. government.

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