The American Legion Magazine
By Alan W. Dowd
When Tony Blair took the helm of the United Kingdom in May 1997, he invited President Bill Clinton to address a cabinet meeting in London—a first for a foreign leader. It was an early indication that Blair took the so-called “special relationship” very seriously.
Ten years and three wars later, Blair has given way to Gordon Brown. It’s difficult to imagine Brown ever inviting President George W. Bush to sit in on a cabinet meeting. Sadly, it’s just as unlikely that Brown will be willing or able to match Blair’s soaring rhetorical skills, farsighted foreign policy and unflinching commitment to the U.S.-led war on terror.
To understand Gordon Brown, it helps to understand what he is not—namely, Tony Blair.
Some forget that Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington long before the Iraq War, even before 9/11.
In 1998, when the UN lost interest in enforcing its own resolutions, only Blair sent warplanes to participate in U.S. raids on Iraqi WMD sites.
Less than a year later, it was Blair who rallied NATO to Kosovo’s defense, declaring “there are times when we have to stand up and fight for peace.” As NATO’s hamstrung air war faltered, Blair persuaded Clinton to contemplate a ground invasion. The Wall Street Journal even called Blair “the de facto leader of the alliance.”
After 9/11, Blair served as an interpreter between Washington and Europe. He spoke Europe’s diplomatic language but shared America’s recognition that diplomacy was a means to an end—not an end in and of itself.
This began on September 14, 2001, when Blair offered a prescient vision of what was to come. Before there was a Bush Doctrine, Blair declared, “Those that harbor or help [terrorists] have a choice: either to cease their protection of our enemies, or be treated as an enemy.” Before Bush outlined the justifications for preventive war, Blair warned that terrorists and their sponsors “would, if they could, go further and use chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction.” As a consequence, Blair continued, “we need to rethink dramatically the scale and nature of the actions the world takes to combat terrorism,” adding, “We have been warned by the events of 11 September. We should act on the warning.”
All of which led back to the unfinished business in Iraq. When it became apparent that France would block a UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein, Blair had his arguments locked and loaded:
-He noted the UN’s own inspectors declared that Saddam had not accounted for VX, anthrax and mustard shells.
-He shamed the UN for its “feebleness,” declaring that some members of the Security Council had failed to live up to their responsibilities. And he called them by name. “France said it would veto a second resolution whatever the circumstances,” he intoned, noting that Paris actually rejected the resolution before Baghdad.
-And he implored his colleagues “to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk.”
After the fall of Saddam’s regime, Blair continued to wield his rhetorical hammer, vowing to “wage war relentlessly” on jihadists. He reminded the world that spreading democracy wasn’t some neoconservative pipedream, unless the leader of the British Labour Party somehow qualified as a neocon. “Imagine an Iraq, stable and prosperous and democratic, and think of the signal that would send out,” he gushed. “This is a cause that any person of good will and good heart should be able to support.”
He remained committed to that cause and to the special relationship that fused him to it. “I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally,” he sighed before leaving office. “I did so out of belief.”
Brown and Blair
Brown’s beliefs are just as strongly held. But many are different than Blair’s.
We caught a glimpse of the differences in 2003, when Brown declared, “We are best when we are Labour”—a not-so-subtle backhand in Blair’s direction. Hoping to convince moderate voters that his party was different from the one that had been exiled from power for almost 20 years, Blair had repackaged the party as “New Labour” in 1997. As PM, Brown has officially and unceremoniously dropped Blair’s nomenclature.
Indeed, Brown has always seemed more of a true believer than Blair. For instance, the BBC reports that Brown was passing out Labour leaflets at the age of 12. As a young university professor, he called on Labour Party leaders to commit “to creating a socialist society.”
By 1983, as a recent BBC retrospective explains, Brown and Blair were sharing office space as young members of parliament and planning their party’s return to power. Brown would provide the intellectual firepower, Blair the friendly face.
“Together, they formed a hugely effective campaigning machine,” the BBC recalls.
Once in power, Blair handled the glitzy, telegenic side of politics, Brown the parliamentary minutia and maneuvering. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown pursued the Blair government’s goals—and his own—with what observers call “Stalinist ruthlessness.”
For example, Brown stunningly derailed Blair’s plan to replace the pound with the euro. “I didn’t think it was economically right for Britain,” Brown told Time. It’s one reason why a USAToday analysis describes Brown as “cooler toward Europe” than Blair.
That same analysis labels Brown “slightly cooler” toward the U.S. Noting that Brown is “recalibrating the special relationship,” Newsweek predicts “less chummy, more businesslike” US-UK interactions.
Of course, it pays to recall that nearly identical things were said about Blair and Bush. A 2001 CNN report predicted that the Bush-Blair relationship was “unlikely to be as close as the chummy” partnership between Blair and Clinton. Yet Blair forged a very close bond with Bush.
But the world is a far less friendly place today, which means the chilly forecasts may be accurate. Given Bush’s dismal ratings in Britain and Brown’s own tenuous hold on power—recent polls show the Conservative Party gaining on Labour—Brown is showing British voters that he’s no Blair:
-Brown has jettisoned the Bush-Blair terminology and calls terrorism “a crime,” pointedly not using the phrase “war on terror.” When pressed by a reporter, Brown conceded there is a “common struggle” and “battle against terrorism.” But the message is clear.
-Brown has labeled Afghanistan “the front line against terrorism,” highlighting a distinct difference with Bush, who calls Iraq “the central front in the war on terror.”
-Brown stoically talks about “duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep” in Iraq. Gone is Blair’s rhetoric about confronting tyrannies and terrorists. But Brown’s actions speak even louder than his words in this regard. In September, Brown ordered British commanders to carry out “a pre-planned and organized” withdrawal from bases in Basra, foreshadowing Britain’s complete pullout from Iraq.
-When asked in July if he trusted Brown to follow Blair’s example and stay the course, Bush could only muster an anemic diplomatic response. “He understands the stakes of the struggle,” Bush said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that he will keep me abreast of his military commanders’ recommendations.”
Yet some of Brown’s critics are not so diplomatic about Brown—or sanguine about his grasp of the “struggle” he has inherited. They note that during Brown’s tenure as chancellor, defense spending as a percentage of GDP fell to its lowest level since 1930. Liam Fox, the shadow defense secretary, blames a rash of friendly-fire deaths in Afghanistan on cuts in defense spending. “As chancellor, Gordon Brown never gave defense much priority,” Fox argues, adding that the British military is now reaping the consequences.
Criticism has also come from nonpartisan sources, such as the National Audit Office, and from the U.S. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute notes that Britain’s “ground forces are too small and are now paying the price” in Iraq. He worries that Americans will also pay the price, arguing that as many as 3,500 U.S. troops may need to be redeployed to hold—or retake—what the British leave behind in Basra.
Brown will help Washington shoulder the heavy burdens of global leadership, of course. The difference is in how much help he will be willing or able to offer.
Brown will not be America’s translator for Europe, a part which Blair played heroically and, it appears, thanklessly. He will not offer his country’s unconditional support, as Blair did after 9/11 and before Iraq. And he will not risk his political future for America, as Blair did many times.
To be sure, Brown will keep collaborating with Washington on missile defense, operations in Afghanistan and sanctions in Iran. But it will be a quieter, less ambitious partnership than the one his predecessors and American counterparts used to defeat Hitler, win the Cold War, liberate Kuwait, reunify Europe, mend the Balkans, and, with all due respect to the new prime minister, wage the war on terror.
 Jeff Stinson, “Blair announces plans to resign in June,” USAToday May 11, 2007.
Brian Wheeler, “The Gordon Brown story,” BBC News, June 27, 2007.
Robert Fox and Raymond Whitaker, “Military commanders tell Brown to withdraw from Iraq without delay,” The Independent, August 19, 2007.
See Gethin Chamberlain, “Gordon Brown attacked over forces funding,” Sunday telegraph, August 26, 2008.