That deal with Clinton was the making of his relationship with Bush.
When the Twin Towers came down nine months after Bush entered the White House, Blair’s words were the most powerful that Americans heard from abroad – eloquent, and from the heart.
Most of them knew little of him but, by the time he went to Washington for private conversations in the days after 9/11, he had already started to take on heroic status. And some of those with him on that day marked a decisive change in his demeanour and belief after talking with Bush, alone in the Blue Room of the White House.
The conviction that the world had changed irrevocably was one that would always torment him, and it fed a habit when talking about world affairs – in contrast, intriguingly, with his attitude at home – to talk about black and white, good and evil.
In parts of the Bush White House, that was a gift from the gods. Vice-President Dick Cheney was the leader of those whose eyes had never turned from Iraq, and the most determined of those who called themselves neo-conservatives.
They saw the 1990-91 Gulf War as unfinished business, and could hardly believe their luck in having a Labour prime minister who was willing to join a war coalition. It was in effect to give powerful cover to an administration struggling for international support – with Blair setting aside the concerns of many of his officials (including some who saw the “whatever” memo before it was sent to the White House and were horrified by its tone, and the implicit promise of unconditional support).
Such was Blair’s confidence at that time – greatly bolstered by the Tories’ leadership travails and the consequent weakness of the parliamentary opposition – that no-one could hold him back. His instinct for “sofa government” had full reign, and the relationship with Washington after 9/11 was so strong that a near-inevitable course was set.
Gordon Brown, his iron chancellor, absorbed himself in the economy and declined to intervene strongly in foreign affairs. In the Foreign Office itself, Jack Straw shared his own worries in many hours of phone calls with his American counterpart, Gen Colin Powell.
The prime minister who showed patience and ingenuity in Northern Ireland, subtlety in Europe, and who was notably suspicious of an ideological approach to domestic affairs, become a true believer. There was an element of naivete in his approach to the hard-liners around Bush – confessing, for example, that he didn’t really know what a neo-conservative was.
One lingering question remains, and will lie unanswered. Could Blair have exercised decisive restraint if he had threatened to withdraw his support? Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would have been contemptuous, but what of the American people?
There are some people who believe that he underestimated his own significance at that time. A public signal of real alarm from America’s principal ally, a figure hugely popular in the United States, might have had more impact than even he believed.
We can’t know. We do know that he had become determined to show no sign of weakness, and it was costly. Great conviction; not enough doubt.
Iraq has come to dominate the Blair legacy to such an extent that many of his notable achievements – the Good Friday agreement, devolution to Scotland and Wales, the minimum wage and a number of social reforms are doomed to shelter under its shadow.
Historians in the future will be able to restore some balance to the record (and to assess whether some classic Blair reforms, like the Private Finance Initiative and student loans and NHS reorganisation, have stood the test of time), but not yet.
His tragedy is that the progressive figure he wanted to be – the first prime minister born after World War Two, who gave the Labour Party a new appeal to the generation dubbed “the millennials” – will be obscured by his most momentous decision.
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