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At the cost of his popularity, Blair follows his principles

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

So spoke the Iron Lady, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to then-President George H.W. Bush when she feared he was waivering in his vow to use military force to undo the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait more than a decade ago.

President George W. Bush, son of Kuwait's liberator, has not felt the need to buck up British Prime Minister Tony Blair as they prepare for war with Iraq against a rising and rancorous chorus of international opposition.

Blair has been anything but wobbly. He has proved to be Bush's most reliable partner on Iraq, and he continues to stand firm even as he is losing support at home. His approval ratings have plummeted to their lowest point in nearly three years. Members of his Labor Party are in open revolt in Parliament over his hard line on Iraq, and there is even talk that some of his Cabinet members may resign in protest unless he changes course.

"Unpopularity," Blair told his Labor Party's spring conference, is sometimes "the cost of conviction."

The prime minister, who is portrayed in the British press as Bush's lapdog, appears resigned to whatever political fate awaits him. Despite the British public's skepticism about going to war to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime, Blair is unwilling to bend to public and political opinion even if it means a regime change at 10 Downing. Regardless of what one thinks of his position on Iraq, he shows every sign of a man acting out of conviction, which is more than can be said of Senate Democrats in Washington. The political risks of following the American president into war are great, but Blair appears willing to pay the price if war is what it takes to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.

The Economist reported last week: "Old friends say that, of late, he has lost his old, near-obsessive, enthusiasm for focus groups. The services of his polling guru, Philip Gould, are in little demand these days. Once so eager to please, Mr. Blair no longer cares very much what people think of him. As long as he reckons he is doing the right thing, he is content to be judged by what happens."

Blair finds himself in a box. On Iraq, there is no "third way." If he backs down, Blair would be seen as another politician running for cover, a fair-weather ally; if he takes his country into war without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, he could face a mass revolt at home. Only 9 percent of the British public supports an attack on Iraq without U.N. backing.

The Bush administration appears to understand Blair's predicament, which may explain why it yielded to the prime minister's urging that it run its war plans through the United Nations before opening fire. What Blair -- and Bush -- need from the Security Council is a second resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. Politically, Blair needs it more than Bush. A new resolution would ease much of the political pressure on the embattled prime minister. According to polls, a majority of Brits will support a war if it is sanctioned by the United Nations.

Bush has vowed to proceed with or without a second resolution, and Blair will have little choice but to support the president if France makes good on its promise to veto any new use-of-force resolution. Blair has more to lose than Bush. His self-styled role as a bridge between America and Europe may already be a casualty of the bitter divisions that have opened up between Washington and "Old Europe," as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described France and Germany.

At a news conference last week, Blair asked the British public to keep an open mind and give him a fair hearing. "It's one of these issues where you've got a duty to try and say to people what you believe," he said, sounding defensive for a change. "Look, I don't pretend to have a monopoly of wisdom on these issues, or that I always know what's right and everybody else is wrong. I totally understand why people march and oppose what we're doing. I just ask people to listen to the other side of the argument."

Despite my reservations and concerns about going to war with Iraq, I have to admire Tony Blair for standing on principle instead of political expediency. I wish more American politicians had followed his example during the Vietnam war. Too many of them, including Robert F. Kennedy, were trimmers who put politics ahead of duty and were all but silent at a critical time in the debate on the Vietnam debacle.

As a U.S. senator from New York in the mid-1960s, Kennedy positioned himself slightly to the left of President Lyndon B. Johnson on Vietnam. He refused to support an effort in the Senate to rescind the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which Johnson used as a blank check to escalate the war. His presidential ambitions kept Kennedy from publicly breaking with Johnson on Vietnam. Instead, Kennedy spoke of the plight of Vietnam refugees, and he would coyly tell college audiences burning with antiwar fever, "You are aware that I have some reservations about our role in Vietnam." In expressing doubts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy would stress that "these are complex problems, with no simple solutions."

Were Kennedy's convictions on Vietnam so feeble, his mind so divided, that he had little to offer but tepid observations on the greatest moral and political issue of his time? It was not until Eugene McCarthy, the real antiwar candidate, exposed Johnson's political vulnerability in the 1968 New Hampshire primary that Kennedy elbowed McCarthy aside and claimed his antiwar constituency.

On Vietnam, Robert Kennedy was no profile in courage. Which is why Tony Blair, right or wrong, ranks higher in my estimation.

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