Washington: To the last, neither George W. Bush nor Tony Blair wavered.
The British prime minister allowed not a single regret about the Iraq war alliance that cost him his popularity and perhaps his job. The US president, losing his best friend on the world stage, bristled at suggestions Blair should already be out the door.
“Trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren’t you?” Bush said on 17 May 2007 at Blair’s side in the White House Rose Garden, admonishing British reporters looking beyond Blair’s tenure six weeks before he leaves office. “You don’t understand how effective Blair is, I guess.”
Bush’s reluctance to see the British leader go is understandable. For Bush, Blair has been a steadfast friend for over six years, an articulate and impassioned defender of the US-led war in Iraq.
The British prime minister has been a presence in Bush’s presidency like no other leader.
Telephone conversations were regular. This White House meeting spanning two days was their 13th get-together in Washington since Bush took office in 2001. It was their 30th overall as leaders, including four in the sought-after atmospheres of the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, or Bush’s Texas ranch.
It was not even their last; that will come early next month at a gathering of major industrialized countries in Germany.
Still, as a farewell of sorts, it was more a sentimental than substantive summit.
Reflecting their close ties, Blair was offered at the last minute—and accepted—a White House sleepover, choosing the Queen’s Bedroom down the hall from the president over the coincidentally named Blair House across the street, the traditional quarters for visiting leaders.
Last evening, Bush and Blair dined on she-crab soup, wagyu beef and potatoes, and rhubarb-strawberry napoleon. The pair then sat on the Truman Balcony, peering out over Washington’s monuments as they chatted into the night. After breakfast the next morning, Blair strolled with Bush from the residence to the Oval Office—though he was left cooling his heels on the patio while the president received his daily intelligence briefing.
There was yet another perk: a trip to the newly renovated and top-secret Situation Room in the basement of the White House, for an hour-long secure videoconference between the two leaders and their countries’ representatives in Iraq.
Bush and Blair have cooperated on Iran, on the Middle East, on fighting malaria, AIDS and genocide in Africa, and on the global anti-terror battle, among a host of pressing issues.
There have been few clues from Blair’s successor, treasury chief Gordon Brown, about whether Britain’s stance will shift in Iraq, where it is the second-largest contributor of troops. Blair suggested it would not, though it was unclear whether he was offering knowledge or opinion.
“I believe we will remain a staunch and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere,” he said. “There is no alternative for us but to fight it wherever it exists.”
The American and British leaders found common ground on Iraq in their first meeting, barely a month after Bush became president. Appearing together at snowy, rustic Camp David, they stood firm on strong sanctions against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Back then, they found little else to bind them.
The conservative US president was asked what he shared with Blair, the younger and liberal prime minister who had been so close —in style and substance—to President Bill Clinton. All Bush could manage (it was said later he thought the question was dumb) was Colgate toothpaste, a commitment to exercise, “great” wives and love for their children.
Over the years, their bond grew intense, based on personal chemistry as well as a fierce belief in the rightness of the 2003 Iraq invasion and the decision to remain there.
This belief was tested, and tested again, by the unrelenting violence that has gripped Iraq and inspired growing doubts among people in both countries. This was underscored when the sounds of a group of anti-war protesters drifted through the Rose Garden during Blair’s last official visit.
Both men now are grayer and more lined from the stress.
Largely because of the war, Bush saw his Republican Party lose stewardship of the Congress in November.
And Blair is believed to be leaving his post earlier than he would have otherwise.
But their positions remain the same.
“We took a decision that we thought was very difficult,” Blair said. “I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision.”
The alliance sometimes seemed all upside for Bush and mostly downside for Blair.
Blair reveled in the fact that a country that was struggling from a crippled economy and diminished global stature when he took office became the best pal of the world’s only superpower on his watch. But Blair’s loyalty did not gain him much, to a sometimes embarrassing degree.
The British leader argued unsuccessfully, for instance, for a more aggressive role for the United Nations in administering postwar Iraq. Nor did he win major concessions from Bush on the steps Blair favoured to address global warming or push for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Wildly popular when he returned his Labour Party to power 10 years ago, Blair was eventually derided as the American leader’s poodle.
“Sometimes it’s a controversial relationship—at least over in my country,” he said. “I have taken the view that Britain should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with America after 11 September. I have never deviated from that view. I do not regret that view.”
Bush was asked if he was responsible for Blair’s political downfall. “Could be,” he said candidly.
But, the president added: “I have enjoyed working with Tony Blair more than I could have possibly imagined.”