The Washington Post Column

Blair in Agony

He has dark circles beneath his eyes, and his cheeks are hollow and gray. Last week he appeared on television to defend his policy on Iraq — sweating, looking as if he’d rather be anywhere else. Yesterday he appeared before the House of Commons on the same mission, looking grim and determined but hardly cheerful. His aides say he has had a “fluey cold.” In fact, Tony Blair is suffering from something far worse: a sudden and overpowering sense of internal contradiction.

Ponder, for a moment, Blair’s dilemma. This, after all, is a British prime minister who has enthusiastically taken his country into every multilateral institution he could, signing up to everything from the European Convention on Human Rights to the Kyoto protocol to the International Criminal Court. Blair’s wife is an international human rights lawyer; Blair’s own lawyers have spent the past few weeks earnestly discussing which U.N. resolutions would make war in Iraq “legal.” Their conclusion — that war can be conducted on the basis of past Security Council Resolutions but cannot be conducted if the Security Council turns down a further resolution — largely explains why the United States, Spain and Britain withdrew their “second resolution” this week.

Needless to say, these fine legal points were of less interest to Blair’s counterparts in Washington, who take a far dimmer view of international law. Yet in an interview almost precisely two years ago, Blair also described himself to me as the most “pro-American prime minister it is possible to have.” At the time, he denied emphatically that there could ever be any contradiction in his devotion to the European Union and his devotion to the United States: “Of course there are circumstances in which Europe and America will be pulled apart. . . . But this is what I’ve learned in four years as prime minister: When we divide, the world is less safe, less stable and less prosperous.”

And yet here we are, at the moment of truth, and “Europe,” led by Germany and France, is on one side of the divide while Britain, together with the United States, is on the other. The fact that Spain is there too, as well as Italy and Eastern Europe, doesn’t erase the central contradiction. Blair’s deep belief in the possibility of the reconciliation of opposites and his faith in his own ability to persuade people to see things his way have suddenly been proven false.

For he didn’t persuade the French, and he didn’t persuade his own party either, although it is important to be careful about the party’s true motivations. The left wing of the Labor Party — more than a third of which rebelled against the government’s Iraq policy last night — has never liked Blair and tolerates him only because he wins elections. They’ve ached to denounce him since he first took over the party and drove it to the center, and they have leaped on the Iraq debate because it presents an opportunity to do so. That Robin Cook, who was foreign minister until Blair demoted him, has also chosen this moment to resign from the government and exact his revenge is hardly surprising either. Nevertheless, these defections surely bother Blair. Even after a lifetime in politics, Blair still believes, as he put it to me, that if he could just “sit down in a room and have a perfectly rational conversation” with his opponents, they’d all come around to his point of view.

But they won’t all come around, because the debate about Iraq in Britain is actually about far more than Iraq. It is about making a choice between two radically different options. Either Britain will become further enmeshed in the world of multilateral institutions, eventually diluting its sovereignty in the European Union; or Britain will continue to have its own foreign policy and a distinct international role. Blair knows this, and said yesterday that the decision to go to war in Iraq “will determine the pattern of politics for the next generation.” Putting it more grandly, the British philosopher Roger Scruton has described this as a test of whether Britain will remain a “nation-state” at all.

Odd though it sounds, Blair is asserting his country’s independence by siding with George Bush. If he is perceived to fail — if the war goes badly, if his party votes him out of office — his career will be at an end, and so will a very old British foreign policy tradition. After such a setback, it’s hard to see how any future British prime minister would ever be able to defy European conventional wisdom again. Until now, Blair has always tried to play by the rules of multilateral Europe and to back the United States. Now he knows that he can’t have it both ways, and his agony shows on his face.