When Great Britain's last great wartime alliance with the United States began, Winston Churchill told Congress in 1941 that the forces "ranged against us are enormous. They are bitter, they are ruthless ... they will stop at nothing." Common cause knit the prime minister to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt during Germany's battle of terror over Britain, and has linked the transatlantic forces once again.
Conversation between Churchill and FDR at first required clunky telephones until engineers developed "Sigsaly," the latest in telecommunications to allow frequent encrypted contact between the two heads of state. FDR worked the phones from the Oval Office; Mr. Churchill, from a converted broom closet in fortified war rooms underground.
In only one of many turnarounds since Sept. 11, Mr. Blair is playing FDR to Mr. Bush's Churchill. The week before the start of U.S.-led assaults on Osama bin Laden's stronghold in Afghanistan, Mr. Blair shuttled through Central Asia armed with a 21-page dossier of classified documents linking the terrorist mastermind to the world's worst terrorist attacks. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, spent hours sequestered in the paneled situation room of the White House, charting the course of the military battles ahead.
In the days surrounding the allies' inaugural air strikes on Afghanistan, Mr. Blair played less a backfield position than a front lineman. On Oct. 2 he delivered a 54-minute speech to his own Labor Party that London papers called the "most impressive speech he has made as prime minister." Instead of laying out his own political agenda, as would be customary, Mr. Blair focused on the terrorist attacks. "In retrospect the millennium marked only a moment in time," he said. "It was the events of 11 September that marked a turning point in history." Mr. Blair called for answering terrorism with "the American spirit of enterprise; the European spirit of solidarity." And he gave a moving account of his reaction to visiting the United States in the days just following the attacks. He called on "parts of Islam" and Western societies "to confront prejudice against America":
"America has its faults as a society, as we have ours. But I think of the Union of America born out of the defeat of slavery. I think of its Constitution, with its inalienable rights granted to every citizen still a model for the world. I think of a black man, born in poverty, who became chief of their armed forces and is now Secretary of State Colin Powell. And I wonder frankly whether such a thing could have happened here.... I think of a country where people who do well, don't have questions asked about their accent, their class, their beginnings, but have admiration for what they have done and the success they've achieved."
Whence this kindness? The attacks "really tore a hole in the hearts of people here," said Charles Colchester, director of Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), a private Christian charity that lobbies parliament on social issues. "The prime minister is really very good in crisis, particularly good at putting into words the feelings of the nation. He was horrified by this and saw that a great wrong had been done to a friend."
Mr. Blair hastily took the heartfelt rhetoric on the road. He began three days of shuttle diplomacy from Moscow to Pakistan and to India. Before his departure, he delivered to Britain's House of Commons intelligence materials linking Mr. bin Laden to the U.S. attacks-the dossier he would carry in his travels. The Labor Party government promptly uploaded a declassified version to the 10 Downing Street website. Several times it became so jammed with visitors, the site had to be temporarily shut down.
In Moscow, Mr. Blair met late into the night with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At one point he took a call from Mr. Bush at Mr. Putin's family dacha, a surreal post-Cold War moment as the two Westerners conferred with an old enemy on the course of a new war.
Then Mr. Blair boarded a Royal Air Force VC10 (with anti-missile protection) for Pakistan. His session with President Pervez Musharraf was critical. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also touring the region on the eve of military action, avoided Pakistan for fear of pushing its fragile balance of power toward the anti-Americans.
Mr. Blair spent four hours on the ground in Pakistan, long enough to show Mr. Musharraf the intelligence data amassed against Mr. bin Laden. To smooth the talks, he brought along a mutual friend, former defense staff chief Lord Guthrie, who trained with Mr. Musharraf at Sandhurst military academy in England and has known him for 20 years. At the end of a meal of Pakistani curry dishes, Mr. Musharraf was sold. Standing side by side with the British prime minister, he told reporters all trails lead to Mr. bin Laden. "I personally ... and my government feels that there is evidence leading to an association between this terrorist act and Osama bin Laden," he said. In a blow also to the Taliban, Mr. Musharraf denounced the rogue regime that once drew its base of support from Pakistan.
Mr. Blair finished the tour with a stop in India, where he also secured support from the region's most populous nation. His strategy, he said, was "to ensure that we have a trap set around Afghanistan in which everyone supports the things we need to do." Only hours after his arrival back at 10 Downing Street, American and British forces launched the initial cruise missile volleys over Kabul and Kandahar.
For the United States, Mr. Blair's close identification with the crisis is a tactical bonus. Upfront support made it harder for other nations to wait out confrontation on the sidelines. During the first round of missile strikes on Oct. 7, France and Germany overcame their pacifistic bent and made pledges of combat troops. "Without Blair there would have been a period of indecision on the part of both countries," said Alan Lee Williams, head of the Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom, a conservative think tank.
More important for long-term strategy, Mr. Blair's diplomacy is bringing together age-old foes India and Pakistan, which harbor longstanding disputes over their shared Kashmir border and the use of nuclear weapons. "It is very difficult for them to come together diplomatically," said Mr. Williams, "and Blair used his position to avert real danger for the subcontinent." On Oct. 8, Mr. Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke for 15 minutes by telephone and agreed to keep lines open during the crisis.
Military cooperation between the United States and Britain will remain tight. In addition to nuclear-powered submarines, Tomahawk missiles, and other firepower, Mr. Blair has pledged key logistical support at the British-held air bases in Diego Garcia and at Royal Air Force headquarters in the desert of Oman.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called solidarity with the United States "automatic" and acknowledged that "without the United States' assistance in not one but two World Wars, we would have none of the freedoms or prosperity we enjoy today."
Mr. Colchester said that mood is mirrored in the streets. "It has been an earthquake for us as well," he told WORLD, "and has had the effect of bringing people to their senses." Britain lost hundreds of citizens in the attack on the World Trade Center, making it the worst act of terrorism in British history, as well.
Speaking to WORLD two days before the counterattack on Afghanistan began, CARE's Mr. Colchester said "a gentle dread" filled the streets of London and the halls of Parliament. Like Americans, Londoners are alarmed by what was once commonplace-the roar of an airplane engine overhead or the blare of a siren headed toward Canary Wharf, London's financial hub. It was the scene of a bloody terrorist strike by the Irish Republican Army in 1996. "There is a heightened sense of wondering what is next. The tempo of worry is up," he said.
The threat of terrorism may be concentrating the minds of parliamentarians, but it has not ended Labor Party initiatives from stretching into the "fantastical," according to Mr. Colchester. Mr. Blair and his "New Labor" movement had agreed to set up 100 new Church of England schools, a move supported by evangelicals like Mr. Colchester and the Conservatives because those schools-traditionally state-sponsored in Great Britain-have the best performance records. Liberals are now trying to quash that move on grounds that religious schools can lead to "fanaticism." Labor is also promoting anti-hate legislation as an antidote to terrorism. "We need to be very careful here," said Mr. Colchester. "It has to be clear how that is defined, or we as Christians may be seen as religiously hateful if we evangelize."
Since taking office Mr. Blair has made public his own faith, and he is a regular churchgoer who swings at times between his Anglican roots and his wife's Catholicism. For the liberal 48-year-old prime minister-once closely compared to Bill Clinton-the war on terrorism and an enduring alliance with the Bush administration represents a political test, whether for him Sept. 11 represented a moment in time or a turning point in history.