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Iraq war casts long shadow over Blair's tenure

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published May 11, 2007


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Just four months after Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, Britain experienced one of the most doleful events in its recent history: the death of Princess Diana in a car accident.

Blair's popularity soared as he eulogized "the people's princess," while Queen Elizabeth was pilloried in the press for refusing to leave her Scottish castle or make any public comments. Blair urged her to come to London and address the nation, warning that her inaction was damaging the monarchy.

Elizabeth grudgingly accepted the advice, but, as portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie The Queen, told the young prime minister that public opinion might one day turn against him, too.

"This will happen to you, Mr. Blair," she says.

Indeed it did, as Blair ends his decadelong tenure every bit as controversial as the queen was then. When he resigns June 27, as he announced Thursday, he will be most remembered for supporting the disastrous war in Iraq and for what critics call his "poodlelike" fealty to President Bush.

Yet Blair's legacy on balance isn't all that bad, even though two of his biggest accomplishments -- the Northern Ireland peace agreement and his sensitive leadership after Diana's death -- came sooner rather than later.

"He's not being pushed out of office the way Margaret Thatcher was, and he's leaving at a time of his own choosing," says Robert McGeehan of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"He might have liked to stay, but from Blair's point of view it's not any embarrassment he's going now."

After 18 years of Conservative rule by Thatcher and her stodgy successor, John Major, Britons were ready for a dramatic change when they elected Blair's New Labor Party in May 1997. At 44, the Oxford-educated, guitar-playing, media-savvy Blair seemed to epitomize "Cool Britannia," as a much-lampooned slogan went.

London again became the world's trendiest city. The tails of once bland British Airways jets were painted in zebra stripes and garish colors. The economy -- thanks in large part to reforms made by the Conservatives -- thrummed along at an astounding clip.

Blair's government "inherited a solid economy and they didn't muck it up, so they do get credit for that," McGeehan says.

Domestically, Labor has had less success in improving the chronically ailing National Health Service or a rail system widely considered the worst in Western Europe. And a pledge to end the "sleaze" of the Conservative years has been undercut by a long series of scandals, several involving close Blair associates.

Especially at the start, Blair was often criticized for spending too much time on matters of little interest to most Britons. Yet therein lay some of his finest achievements.

In 1999, as Yugoslav forces went on a rampage against Muslims in Kosovo, Blair helped persuade a reluctant Clinton administration and other NATO allies to be more aggressive with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. After a brief war, Milosevic was driven from power, refugees returned home and a shaky peace has prevailed ever since.

Blair spent much of his first year in office brokering an end to the "Troubles" between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

But it was not until this week that two former archenemies -- Protestant leader Ian Paisley and onetime Catholic paramilitary boss Martin McGuinness -- agreed to head a new provincial government.

Northern Ireland's drawn-out experience may give Blair hope that Iraq will eventually straighten out, too. His legacy -- like that of Bush -- largely depends on what happens there, and so far the signs are not good.

"Even loyal Blairites must now concede that serious mistakes were made: in the overselling of the intelligence, in the woefully inadequate planning for the postwar situation -- with the United States chiefly culpable -- and in not doing more to rein in the excesses and inconsistencies of the Bush administration," Blair's biographer, Anthony Seldon, told the BBC.

Moreover, Seldon continued, the Iraq war has stolen time and effort from three of Blair's "cherished causes": resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, eliminating poverty in Africa and combating global warming.

In his speech Thursday to Labor Party members, Blair alluded to the enormous unpopularity of the war, which has claimed 148 British lives. But he continued to justify it as part of a larger war on terror:

"For many, it simply isn't and can't be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through. They, the terrorists, who threaten us here and round the world will never give up if we give up. It is a test of will and of belief, and we can't fail it."

Reading those words, I thought back to the misty spring day in 1997 when I went on a campaign trip with Blair and his wife, Cherie, to southeastern England.

It was a curious affair by U.S. standards -- here was a candidate about to transform British politics, yet there were only a dozen or so journalists. And among the very few voters the Blairs met was a woman complaining about the "crime wave" purportedly sweeping the country -- someone had stolen her garden gnomes and thrown a firecracker in her house.

"That's terrifying," Cherie Blair said as the future prime minister nodded in agreement. "That's very, very horrible."

Could anything have been further removed from 9/11, the London bombings, the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan? It was just 10 years ago and yet it seemed a much simpler time, as Blair is undoubtedly thinking as the world rushes to judge him.

"Some things I knew I would be dealing with," he said Thursday. "Some never occurred to me, or to you, on that morning of 2 May 1997 when I came into Downing Street for the first time. ... But I ask you to accept one thing. Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 11, 2007, 11:29:11]


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