Harold Evans: America loves a good guy

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The Independent Online

Americans embraced it as an historic address, moving in its eloquence, rousing in its evangelical fervour, inspirational in its moral commitment. "We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no dominion. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind."

That was Washington, 1 April 1917, not Brighton, October 2001. Americans then were cheering their 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, as he took them into the First World War. He dedicated the country to making the world safe for democracy, "to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth".

Tony Blair's speech on the New World Order has excited the American imagination very much as Wilson's did when he went to war to make peace.

There are two levels to the American response to Blair: one visceral, the other intellectual. On the first, I have lost count of the number of people – in the gym, in the cab, in the street – who have slapped my back, as someone from Britain, in congratulation over Mr Blair's Brighton speech but also over his whole demeanour since 11 September.

When Bill Clinton was in the White House, Mr Blair tended to be treated in the media as an acolyte. Now, it is Mr Blair who is getting the star treatment. One former member of the Clinton cabinet felt he was doing almost too well: "He is going round the world like a president and there's political danger for him if he outshines Bush." I asked Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, if Blair had eclipsed George Bush. "The speech he made to Congress was excellent," he says, "but when I heard Blair I was more stirred. He is showing us what we are missing, because Clinton isn't present. This is his finest hour."

The phone banks of a radio show in Minnesota were jammed with people calling to register their gratitude for Mr Blair's leadership – not simply for joining the team. One caller wished Mr Blair was "president of the world". Why stop there? The adjectives I've heard require an inter-galactic amphitheatre.

What moves these people? The answer may lie in something we are apt to forget in the fast-moving world of the eternal now: the power of the historical imagination. In the same Senate chamber where Mr Blair was singled out by Mr Bush stood Churchill on 26 December 1941, asking of Japan: "What kind of people do they think we are?" Let me emphasise that the suspicion that Americans are infatuated with Mr Blair because they are eager to have someone share the bomber cockpit over Afghan villages is an obscene caricature of their support for military action.

People appreciate the complexities of exterminating terrorists who use civilian populations as their hostages. They are patient – but they are also resolved. What they cannot stomach is the vapours of moral relativism from across the Atlantic, from all those in Europe who seek to explain the depravity of 11 September as somehow related to anger created by American foreign policy.

Among the elites, as much as the public, there is much talk of the "Blair phenomenon". Richard Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the UN who brokered the Dayton peace accord for Bosnia, told me the speech was "spectacular" and would have a "substantial effect" on Mr Bush's administration.

But the Taliban and its evil works are but a smudge on the vast panorama Mr Blair has invited the world to view. Community. Democracy and prosperity for all of Africa. No more Rwandas. Free trade. Unity against global warming, poverty and prejudice. Justice in Northern Ireland. Greater amity with Europe. It is this, the Woodrow Wilson aspect of his speech, the boundlessness of the good intentions, which divides opinion in the US. They see it variously as thrilling and daunting.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr told me that he applauded Blair's vision of an interdependent world, but worried that "we may be falling into a trap set by bin Laden", that military action would light the blue paper for political explosions throughout the Middle East and Asia. Richard Holbrooke asks: "What do you do for instance in a Christian-Muslim war in Nigeria?"

Sometimes who is right and wrong may not be as clear as Tony Blair suggested. Henry Kissinger told me he was impressed by the vigour of Mr Blair's exposition and that he was right about Rwanda. But Kissinger was "a little uneasy" about the inference that this was a good moment to solve every problem in the world.

The isolationist right, which until recently was alive and flourishing in much of the White House, never did warm to Woodrow Wilson who supplanted Theodore Roosevelt's balance of power foreign policy with the moralism of a world crusade for human rights. The same people are still there.

The concentration for the moment is on collaring bin Laden, so the neo-isolationists hold their tongues. But these are the people who pulled out of the nuclear test ban treaty, the comprehensive test ban treaty, and Kyoto, and who have tried to take American peacekeepers out of the Balkans.

That dismaying unilateralism is an orphan now. Everyone is a multilateralist in the hour of need. But the former Clinton minister who applauded Tony Blair's "brilliance and fortitude" told me that Mr Blair should be careful in the euphoria of the moment. "I was present when Clinton and Blair bonded like brothers," he said. "Tony has to be wary of those guys around Bush who spend so much time burnishing his image. And the Europeans are suspicious of any special-relationship grandstanding."

My view is that Mr Blair can keep this in balance if he firms up the one-to-one relationship in frequent conversations with a president rather than relying on the written word as Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill did. George Bush is not a jealous type. His friends say he recognises that Tony Blair has something he doesn't have and is happy for him to make the case. But in the weeks to come, Mr Blair will need all his tact as well as his forcefulness.

British critics to Woodrow Blair are not always without sense, but they are without vision. Any fool can point out the difficulties in his concept of infinite programmes for peace and justice. Winston Churchill, inevitably, had it right. When his idea for the floating Mulberry Harbour at D-Day ran into resistance, he said, "Pray don't argue the difficulties. The difficulties will argue themselves."

That is not a facetious response. When Churchill said "You ask what is our policy?", his answer was irrational: "Victory". That victory was achieved, out of the unpredictable collisions of circumstance and will. It would never have been achieved if the defeatism of Lord Halifax had prevailed in those tense Cabinet meetings in May 1940.

In this crisis, the aching void has been for inspiration, for a portrait of the better world, the "lasting good" that should emerge from the "shadow of evil". What do we set against the medieval hatreds of the fundamentalists? We have our fundamentals, too: the values of Western civilisation. When they are menaced, we need a ringing affirmation of what they mean.

President Bush gave us a prescription for the struggle with terrorism. His too was an excellent speech, but it was managerial, the voice of CEO America. The remarkable response to Tony Blair is a recognition that he has provided that simple but elusive quality all of us need in these anxious times: moral leadership.

Harold Evans is the author of 'The American Century'