Sunday, March 16, 2003

If Thomas Friedman says it, then it must be the conventional wisdom. His latest is no exception: "I am glad Mr. Bush is meeting with Tony Blair. In fact, I wish he would turn over leadership on the whole Iraq crisis to him. Mr. Blair has an international vision that Mr. Bush sorely needs. 'President Bush should be in charge of marshaling the power for this war,' says the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen, 'and Tony Blair should be in charge of the vision for which that power should be applied.'"

I've already noted the popularity of the "Bush is screwing up" view among what Mickey Kaus calls the "balking hawks"--reluctant pro-war pundits, generally liberal, whose reluctance has intensified lately. The latest corollary, apparently, is that Bush can't hold a candle to Tony Blair on the diplomatic front, and should have let him take the lead all along.

Well, as far as I know, this whole second-UN-resolution fiasco wasn't exactly George W. Bush's idea in the first place. Nor was the letter of support from the eight "New Europe" countries that blindsided the French and thus cemented the latter's virulent opposition to the war. Indeed, if it hadn't been for these feckless attempts on Tony Blair's part to palliate his own domestic and Continental political vulnerabilities, it's a fair bet that the troops cooling their heels in Kuwait would be in or around Baghdad by now, and Both Blair's and Bush's troubles would largely be behind them. Who, then, geopolitically speaking, has the two left feet?

In fact, the fellow who seems to have played his cards most deftly, at this point, is none other than Jacques Chirac, who has parlayed his pathetically weak international position into one of remarkable power and influence, simply by taking advantage of the clumsy multilateralist posturing of Tony Blair. The Americans alone would have been invulnerable on that score, as would the British, I suspect, had Blair adopted a Thatcherite, Britain-first stance to neutralize his domestic opponents and fortify himself against his Continental competitors. But Chirac saw Blair's one-world woolly-mindedness as an opportunity, and has (so far) exploited it perfectly. Where Blair has been conciliatory, consensus-minded and idealistic, Chirac has been arrogantly confrontational, unilateralist and cynically self-interested. Guess who won?

Now, Blair is a professional politician of renowned canniness, and perhaps (as I suggested before) his hawkish-but-warm-and-fuzzy balancing act was really the only pro-war path that offered him any hope of domestic political survival. Even were that so, however, it would be hard to credit Blair with any particular tactical brilliance, or to blame the Bush administration for the two allies' shared predicament--except, perhaps, in that Bush was too willing to humor a hobbled ally in the name of "multilateralism".

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