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Bush could learn from Blair

Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-ed columnist, New York Times


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LONDON -- One of the saddest results of our war in Iraq is that it may finish off Tony Blair before Saddam Hussein.

Everywhere I go in Britain, people dismiss Mr. Blair as President Bush's poodle. Mr. Blair's Labor Party has fallen behind the Conservatives in the latest poll, for only the second time in 11 years. "The Iraq critics think that the prime minister has betrayed his country to a Texas gunslinger," William Rees-Mogg noted in The Times of London.

So it'll sound foolish when I suggest that President Bush should study Mr. Blair and learn a few things. But on the other hand, everybody likes Mr. Blair but the Brits.

A poll by the Pew Research Center found that Mr. Blair was the world leader Americans trusted most (Mr. Bush ranked second), respected by 83 percent of Americans, and he was also highly esteemed in countries as diverse as Australia and Nigeria. More interesting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair took very similar positions over the last couple of years, and both exaggerated the Iraqi threat and yet Mr. Blair is perhaps the leading statesman in the world today and Mr. Bush is regarded by much of the globe as a dimwitted cowboy. Or, as an Oxford don put it to me after perhaps too much sherry, "a buffoon."

The main reason is that the White House overdosed on moral clarity.

Mr. Bush always exudes a sense that the issues are crystal clear and that anyone who disagrees with him is playing political games. This fervor worked fine in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and in proper doses, moral clarity is admirable. But too much hobbles policy-making and insults our intelligence.

Mr. Blair stands with Mr. Bush on Iraq but acknowledges the complexity of the issues.

"Yes, there are countries that disagree with what we are doing; I mean, there's no point in hiding it there's been a division," Mr. Blair told reporters at Camp David early in the war, when the two leaders were asked about opposition to the war among allies. But Mr. Bush gave no ground, saying: "We've got a huge coalition. . . . I'm very pleased with the size of our coalition."

Mr. Blair met Pope John Paul II and the archbishop of Canterbury to discuss their opposition to the war. But President Bush refused to discuss objections to the war with the head of the National Council of Churches or even the head of his own church, the United Methodists.

Political insults are a traditional British sport (Churchill famously described his rival Clement Atlee as a sheep in sheep's clothing, and as a modest man with much to be modest about). But Mr. Blair dignifies his opponents by grappling with their arguments in a way that helps preserve civility and that we Americans can learn from.

Mr. Bush is not the dummy his critics perceive. My take is that he's very bright in a street-smarts way: he's witty and has a great memory for faces, and his old girlfriends speak more highly of him than many women do of their husbands. But he's also less interested in ideas than perhaps anybody I've ever interviewed, and his intelligence is all practical and not a bit intellectual. Nuance isn't his natural state, and yet he gives us glimmers to show he can achieve it.

The last time Mr. Bush seemed genuinely to wrestle with an issue was the summer of 2001, when he acknowledged the toughness of the stem cell debate. He showed an impressive willingness to puzzle through stem cell policy and seek a compromise.

If Mr. Bush had pursued that same model of policy-making into Iraq, then we would not have alienated our allies or bungled postwar planning because of rosy assumptions.

In 1979, James Fallows wrote a legendary critique of President Jimmy Carter's "Passionless Presidency." He argued that Mr. Carter was a smart, decent man who excelled in details but catastrophically lacked a sweeping vision to inspire the country and animate his presidency.

Well, now we've got a Passionate Presidency. But it's so focused on big-picture ideological campaigns that it doesn't bother with details (like what we will do with Iraq after we've conquered it). Mr. Blair offers a third way passion tethered to practicality, idealism without ideologues.

Given that Mr. Blair might end up with time on his hands, perhaps Mr. Bush could hire him as an adviser.

Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.


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