WASHINGTON—British Prime Minister Tony Blair has paid a high price for his friendship with President Bush, but he'll still be back at the White House this week to say goodbye to his wartime ally.
It's likely to be a bittersweet parting for two leaders who will be forever linked by the Iraq war. Their dream of remaking the Middle East has turned into a nightmare. Their popularity has evaporated. Their place in history hinges on the outcome of the war that forged their unlikely friendship.
Blair's decision to step down next month leaves Bush alone on the world stage to defend his Iraq policies without the help of his more eloquent partner. After welcoming Blair to the White House Wednesday evening, Bush will host his guest at a farewell question-and-answer session with reporters on Thursday.
Blair is far more popular in the United States than he is in his own country, where he has been pilloried for his close ties to the unpopular American president. Assessments of his 10 years in office praise him for revitalizing the British economy, improving education and health care, and finding a peaceful solution to the bloody religious feud in Northern Ireland.
"But, of course, there is really only one issue which will scar history's view of Tony Blair: Iraq," the Daily Mail editorialized last week. "What he did was to order British troops into an unlawful war against the wishes of the United Nations, our European allies and a majority of people in this country. And to order it on a lie."
In a recent interview with the BBC, Blair acknowledged that he would be much better off politically if he were to declare that he was "having nothing to do with George Bush."
Yet Blair has never wavered from his pledge to stand with Bush on Iraq. He said his commitment to the Anglo-American alliance—the "special relationship," as it's known in diplomatic circles—was sealed by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I've never had any doubt, since September the 11th, that our place was, as I said at the time, shoulder to shoulder with America. . . . I've never had any problem with that," he told NBC's Brian Williams Tuesday, on the eve of his latest Washington visit. "I think it'll be a very dark day for my country when we do have a problem with it."
On the surface, the two leaders are a mismatched pair—a British intellectual from the liberal side of the political spectrum and a rough-edged conservative who relishes his Texas roots. Aides on both sides of the Atlantic had low expectations when they met for the first time in February 2001, about a month after Bush took office.
"The rap on Blair was that he was Bill Clinton's best friend," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's first White House press secretary. "Who would have guessed that a conservative like George Bush and a Labor liberal like Tony Blair would have such a similar world view?"
Fleischer said the two hit it off immediately by plunging into a businesslike discussion of international threats. From the start, they saw eye-to-eye about the potential threat from Iraq, although Blair pressed Bush to exhaust diplomacy before resorting to war.
Some skeptics view the Bush-Blair alliance as a marriage of convenience, cemented by Blair's desire to align Britain with the world's superpower.
"Blair is a shrewd calculator," said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic-leaning think tank. "I think Blair has faked a lot of his relationship with Bush. With Clinton, I don't think it was fake at all."
Presidential adviser Dan Bartlett said Bush chafes at critics who've labeled Blair a White House lap dog.
"I've heard the president say, `People think I say, `Jump,' and he says, `How high?' The reality is we always jump together," Bartlett said. "The decision to go to war, the decision to commit troops, takes it to another level. They've forged a very special relationship, both personal and professional."
Bush and Blair sealed their alliance in September 2002, about six months before the Iraq invasion. In a meeting at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, Bush agreed to Blair's request to seek U.N. approval for military action. Blair agreed that British troops would join the invasion.
In a later interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Bush called it "the cojones meeting," using the Spanish term for testicles as a tribute to Blair's commitment.
When Blair announced last week that he would step down on June 27, Bush praised the prime minister as "a man who kept his word, which is sometimes rare in the political circles I run in."
Blair insists that he has no regrets, even knowing now that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction.
"I would make the same decision to remove Saddam," he told NBC. "All these questions about judgment and legacy and all the rest, I leave that for other people."