The spoils of war: parting gift for Bush's brother in arms

Click to follow
The Independent US

The man mocked as George Bush's poodle was back in Washington yesterday to accept an offer he couldn't refuse: the Presidential Medal of Freedom for services rendered in the "war on terror" and in what Mr Bush maintains is that war's central front – Iraq.

Tony Blair may be little loved these days in his own country, and hasn't exactly covered himself in glory in his current role as special envoy for the Quartet of great powers, standing impotently by as Gaza goes up in flames. But like Margaret Thatcher before him, a former British prime minister has found that in America, life after political death exists.

The praise was generous and the applause long and heartfelt, in the ceremonial East Room of the White House where once Messrs Bush and Blair held defiant joint press conferences in defence of their war in Mesopotamia. "He understood the stakes in the war on terror," the President enthused, at one point seeming to wink in his guest's direction. "Tony Blair's entire career has been defined by his devotion to democratic values and human dignity. At his very centre this man believes in freedom."

Mr Blair listened, smiling faintly, as Mr Bush went on to use him as an undisguised metaphor for himself, eight days before he steps down as the most unpopular and least admired president of modern times – and the worst of all time, according to informal polls of historians in the US.

But as always Mr Bush believes in vindication, just as yesterday he insisted that Mr Blair will be vindicated, in the decision to unleash their war of choice in Iraq. "Tony Blair remains on the world stage; he will stand tall in history." Then the big moment came, as the former prime minister bowed forward slightly as his old comrade in arms pinned the gold medal with its blue and white ribbon, America's highest civilian honour, around his neck.

A brief hand shake and smile (did it seem slightly sheepish?) and then it was on to the next honoree, the former Australian prime minister John Howard, another leading member of the "coalition of the willing" – and the man whose one-night stay at Blair House will have kept the Obama family out of the official presidential guest residence for an entire two weeks.

Whatever else, yesterday showed again that George Bush is not a man to admit error. In December 2004, in an identical ceremony, the 43rd president bestowed the medal of freedom on three others who distinguished themselves mightily over Iraq: General Tommy Franks, who went to war with too few troops; George Tenet, the CIA director who famously declared that Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD was a "slam dunk;" and Jerry Bremer, America's first viceroy in Baghdad, who botched the crucial first year of the occupation.

More than four years on, 140,000-plus US troops are still tied down in Iraq. But Mr Bush still believes that he and Mr Blair – whose eloquence did much to sell the war to the US public – did the right thing, despite the loss of more than 4,500 coalition troops, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and a bill of $700bn and counting.

And yesterday of all days, even though Iraq has destroyed his reputation too, the former prime minister was not going to spoil the party. But maybe some doubts secretly gnaw at Mr Blair. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in July 2003 and, for reasons yet to be convincingly explained, has never collected the gong. It was said there were problems with the individually crafted design – and this week the office of the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, claimed that Mr Blair was taking a close interest in the final design before the medal was specially produced by the US Mint. More likely, the then prime minister did not want to have honours showered upon him by a country whose leader was desperately unpopular in Britain, if not yet in the US. This time there was no escape.

Now of course it doesn't matter so much. Mr Blair is 18 months out of office, and Mr Bush's reputation is so battered that the only direction it can go is up. Above all, yesterday was a last appearance of the most recent couple to star in one of the least successful episodes in that long-running diplomatic serial known by some as the special relationship. After Churchill and Roosevelt, Thatcher and Reagan, Bush and Blair just don't measure up.