Paired with Blair

International | In the new war on terrorism, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reprise old roles

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

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.

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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.


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