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Blair knew better on Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

History will forever link Tony Blair, the outgoing British prime minister, with President Bush against a backdrop of carnage in Iraq. That is, in one sense, as it should be. For all of Mr. Blair's brilliant success in reshaping and reviving the Labor Party, the failure in Iraq looms as his most consequential decision. Yet, as Mr. Blair arrived in Washington last week for a valedictory sit-down with Mr. Bush, the simple conflation of the prime minister and the president obscures the contradictions of their partnership.

Although Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush marched into war together, they did so in the service of distinct and even opposing visions. Long before Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Blair argued that no single nation could solve the 21st century's toughest problems. Only through international cooperation could the world confront challenges ranging from global warming to global terror.

"We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not," Mr. Blair insisted in a landmark 1999 speech to the Chicago Economic Club. The best hope for stability and progress, he declared, was for the world to unite behind "a new doctrine of international community."

For Mr. Blair, international action against Saddam Hussein was meant to embody that collaboration. In the weeks before war in 2003, Mr. Blair portrayed the invasion as an opportunity for the world community to prove it could come together to enforce global rules.

Mr. Bush welcomed Mr. Blair's support. But in Iraq, the president had something very different in mind. Whatever its other motivations, the invasion was intended to demonstrate the consequences of threatening U.S. interests after Sept. 11. For Mr. Bush, Iraq was a rock through the window of the world's outlaw regimes. And in that mission, trying to encourage "international community" by accepting constraints on American action was not only unnecessary but counterproductive.

Even after the war, Mr. Blair never stopped preaching the virtues of an "international community that ... acts in pursuit of global values." But he undercut his ability to promote such a community by locking arms with Mr. Bush on an Iraq strategy that alienated much of the world during the invasion and in its aftermath. At crucial moments, Mr. Blair sublimated his inclusive internationalism to Mr. Bush's brusque unilateralism.

As Mr. Blair steps aside, it's reasonable to ask whether his fellow center-left political leaders around the world, including U.S. Democrats, can excavate from the wreckage in Iraq anything valuable in his original conception of "international community." The answer should be yes, but only after carefully picking through the rubble. In retrospect, Mr. Blair's Chicago speech contained a debilitating flaw that helps explain his failure to anticipate the risks in Iraq.

Mr. Blair's speech was shaped by the American-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and it overflowed with baby boomer confidence about the capacity of good intentions to set the world right. His vision was missing the astringent understanding of the fallibility of both men and nations that anchored the foreign policy thinking of Cold War-era realists like Reinhold Niebuhr, the brilliant American theologian. Iraq exposed that blind spot in Mr. Blair. The war has demonstrated again, in ways Mr. Niebuhr might have anticipated, that there are limits to our ability to shape other societies or even to fully anticipate the consequences of our actions.

Mr. Blair compounded his initial error as the war with Iraq arrived. He faced the intellectual challenge of squaring his vision of a collaborative international community with his decision to join the U.S. in an invasion launched without explicit United Nations authorization or broad global acceptance. Mr. Blair's response was to channel the logic of the American military officer in Vietnam who declared it necessary to destroy a village in order to save it. If the American-led coalition refused to act against Iraq because it could not obtain U.N. approval, Mr. Blair argued, the international community would be revealed as impotent and irrelevant.

That paralysis, he insisted in his final prewar speech to Parliament, "would do the most damage to the U.N.'s future strength." Only by flouting the United Nations, in other words, could President Bush and Mr. Blair safeguard the future of collective international action.

That argument turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The lack of international support and legitimacy for the war enormously complicated the task of rebuilding Iraq. And the breach that the war widened between the United States and the world swallowed Mr. Blair's cause of an engaged global community mobilizing against other transnational threats.

The tragedy of Mr. Blair's partnership with Mr. Bush on Iraq is that the prime minister knew better. The irony of their partnership is that each virtually has guaranteed that his successor will pursue a more consensual and pragmatic foreign policy - not by providing a model to emulate but by demonstrating so painfully the price of the alternative.

Ronald Brownstein is national affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared.

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