Like Mayor Giuliani, so perfectly attuned to New York's mood since Sept. 11 that his moribund political career has rejuvenated, Tony Blair has had a good war. The British Prime Minister threw himself into shaping and building support for the campaign against al-Qaeda. He barnstormed Paris, New York, Washington and Brussels in just two days last week, meanwhile working the phone from his plane to explore cooperation with Iran's President Mohammed Khatami. George Bush put his arm around him at the White House and described him to a joint session of Congress as "my friend"; Blair, looking stern and resolute in the visitors' gallery in a place of honor next to Bush's wife Laura, got a tumultuous standing ovation. Polls back home showed strong support for his leadership and, if necessary, for military action.
This was harder than it looked. Blair was Bill Clinton's soulmate, but with the right-wing Bush gang, says an American in close touch with Downing Street, Blair is still "feeling his way." British public opinion was revulsed by the kamikaze attacks, which killed more Britons (estimated at more than 200) than any single incident since the Blitz. Nevertheless, Blair's quick promise to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the U.S. sparked criticism that he was unwisely giving an untested Bush a blank check in order to curry favor, and trying to drown out domestic problems in a wave of patriotism.
Of course Blair is a savvy politician whose debt to polls and media spin is well known. But in this case his high-voltage backing of Bush was instinctive and immediate, the product of what one senior official calls "a very strong sense of right and wrong." By the time the first tower collapsed he had already canceled a major speech to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton and was returning to London, speaking from his car to Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon to figure out how Britain could respond. From the start, Blair was convinced that Osama bin Laden's sort of terror is evil and must simply be defeated. "It knows no boundaries, and also no limits except technical capability," he says. "These people would use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons if they could. We have no option but to act." An aide speculates that the reason Blair and Bush get along so well despite their glaring differences of style, fluency and politics is that "they share a directness, and a moral certainty. And self-confidence."
Blair has sought to position Britain as the bridge between the U.S. and Europe, and in this crisis it is working. "He can say things that are basically identical to what Bush says, but in an idiom that other Europeans find persuasive," says a British official. The bridge carries traffic to Washington too. Bush may not have needed Blair to conclude that quick military strikes would undermine support from Europe and the Middle East for a long-term alliance against terror, but that was Blair's advice from the start. When Bush said to Congress that "we will meet violence with patient justice," that tracked language British officials were recommending several days before. Clearly Britain is the junior partner in the "special relationship" across the Atlantic. Blair has mastered the feat of standing close without looking small.