I was talking to a senior member of the Bush administration the other day, and I asked him why he thought Tony Blair was so popular in the United States. "Because he puts principles above polls," he replied. "An unprincipled politician does what the polls tell him." It was an interesting perception of a man now practically reviled in his own country: that Blair is popular in the US despite his fellow countrymen, not because of them.
American views of the British, I've always found, are much more complicated than a superficial analysis might suggest. There is still residual mistrust dating from the revolution; but that is for the nation as a whole, rather than for individuals. Margaret Thatcher achieved similar heroic status to Blair, but - and this is the widespread American view - it was for knocking an ungrateful country into shape and clobbering the unions. Both Blair and Thatcher, in fact, have been the subject of idolatry in the US that is in inverse proportion to the regard with which they are held in their own country; each is seen as a leader who has followed the American Way rather than the British.
Blair, above all, is seen as articulate - which is not that hard when nearly all his public utterances in the US are made alongside Boy George. Personally, I find his performances with Bush to be fey and peculiarly embarrassing, especially when he is presenting new, highly dodgy "intelligence" culled from that morning's edition of the New York Times (see NS, 16 September 2002). But Americans are always prone to stereotype foreigners, and we should never be fooled into thinking that speaking the same language (or a similar one) makes the two countries less foreign to each other.
I find that when Americans hear my British accent, they tend to assume I'm clever and well educated - and that I have a broader vocabulary than them. (This last may be true; I find I often dumb down my conversations with Americans.)
This is the stereotype into which Blair conveniently fits: that he is cleverer and better educated than American leaders, and that he speaks from a wider vocabulary (again, probably true). Ever since Thatcher's days, there has been a cult following among the chattering classes here for the Sunday-night cable television screenings of Prime Minister's Questions. Dealing with roars of disapproval and heckling is an experience unknown to American politicians, and brings much admiration if the Prime Minister can make his or her words resonate above the hubbub, and even more admiration if he or she appears to be getting the better of the yelling and nasty hordes.
But Britons should not be fooled into believing that what they think matters to the Americans. The Bush administration was not in the least reluctant, for example, to land Blair and Britain in it by letting it be known that the forged "intelligence" about Saddam seeking uranium from Niger (which Bush used in his State of the Union address) came from Britain rather than from the CIA or other US intelligence sources. When it comes to the crunch, America acts in its own interests; Blair or Britain comes second, at best, in the calculations.
It is much the same with the two Britons, Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, whom the Americans plan to put before military tribunals and who face death sentences in Guantanamo, Cuba. Blair, I notice, has kept quiet about this; it has been left to two junior Foreign Office ministers, Baroness Symons ("clearly, we want the Americans to give us assurances that the international minimum standards of fair trials will be met") and Chris Mullin ("we will follow the process very carefully"), to voice dissent. I expect the two Britons eventually to be repatriated; the Americans offered earlier this year to send home the Australian who is also facing a military tribunal, but the Howard government said it did not want him. Yet the Americans have not hesitated to put Blair into a difficult position where domestic pressures may force him to express dissent against the US.
Should it come to that, Blair will find his popularity here vanishing speedily. He will be seen as weak on suspected members of al-Qaeda, and a wimp when it comes to military tribunals and death sentences; in short, as un-American. That side of Blair, the more left-wing side characteristic of the former plain MP Blair rather than the PM Blair, is unknown to Americans. If Blair and Bush ever discussed the beliefs they held in the past, I suspect Bush would be in for a shock.
Indeed, the days when President Kennedy's door was open practically daily to Lord Harlech (formerly Sir David Ormsby-Gore), Britain's ambassador to the US, have long since passed. Astonishingly, Britain has even been without an ambassador for the past six months, a period which included the whole of the Iraq war. Since the outgoing ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, left to become chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Blair has not dared to spare the new ambassador, Sir David Manning, from his position as No 10's chief foreign policy adviser. Manning will come to Washington at the end of the summer, but the main links between the two governments today are Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Jonathan Powell in No 10.
Despite Americans' subconscious beliefs that Brits are better educated and cleverer than they are, the American Way still stands high in their minds above all others. If Blair started disagreeing with American views, his heroic status would quickly be dropped. His popularity here is because, rather than pursuing the Third Way, he has fully adopted the American Way - just like Margaret Thatcher.