As Tony Blair batted back inquiries last week over the case he made for going to war with Iraq, George W. Bush spent the dwindling days of his month-long vacation at his Texas ranch exercising and hacking away cedar in the 100F heat. But though Bush was doing more literal sweating last week, Blair was taking all the political heat. How come? The two leaders made the same claims, and met repeatedly to plot and promote their case; their staffs coordinated closely on intelligence; and Alastair Campbell was in frequent transatlantic huddles with White House communications director Dan Bartlett. Yet while Blair's team fights back against charges of having "sexed up" the case for war, no one watching from the White House is worried about ending up in the same bed. "Sure we feel for them," says one senior aide, "but their situation is different."
Unlike Blair, Bush went after Saddam with his party solidly behind him. No Republican of consequence has challenged the case he made for war. Since the Republicans control Congress, there is little chance of a serious inquiry that might nick the president. Despite several weeks of tough coverage concerning Bush's faulty claims about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa, the President retains solid approval of 59% of the country, according to a recent Gallup poll. Nearly daily stories of disaster and death in Iraq have not shaken American attitudes about the conflict either: 63% of those polled still support the decision to go to war.
So the White House doesn't worry much about any questions Bush may face about the walkup to war. It is more concerned that the post-war deaths, whose number last week surpassed those suffered during major combat operations, might erode America's faith in the ongoing mission and raise questions about the Bush team's competence. Last week, Bush gave the first in a series of speeches attempting to "big-picture Iraq," as one top adviser put it, meaning to place the conflict in the larger context of the global war on terror. A bombing in Baghdad is just as pernicious as one in Bali, goes the reasoning, which skates over the fact that America invaded Iraq but not Indonesia.
As the President makes such arguments, he faces a far less hostile press than the Prime Minister does. American cable channels competed to see which could produce the larger flag to flutter on their broadcasts during the Iraq war. The tougher cut and thrust of the U.K. media warms press antagonists in the Bush administration to their own domestic corps. "After spending time with them," said one U.S. official of the British media, "you guys seem all right."
Every blow Blair absorbs only increases his stature with Bush. White House aides are anxious to portray the two men as cut from the same cloth. "Maybe he'll put a bust of Blair in the Oval," jokes a Bush aide. Or let Blair himself camp out there if London starts to seem too bloody hot.