WASHINGTON—Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday that he has no regrets for his Iraq war alliance and friendship with President Bush and doesn't blame him for the plunging popularity that drove him to step down.
With eloquence and passion, Blair defended his friendship with Bush and their decision to invade Iraq in what likely was his last news conference in the White House Rose Garden. In London, Gordon Brown was confirmed as Blair's replacement. He will assume office June 27.
"... (S)tanding next to President Bush, I've admired him as a president and I regard him as a friend," Blair said. "I have taken the view that Britain should stand shoulder to shoulder with America after September the 11th. I have never deviated from that view. I do not regret that view. I am proud of the relationship we have had. I'm proud of the relationship between our two countries."
But Blair paid a political price at home for his loyalty. Critics ridiculed him as Bush's "poodle." A politician who was riding high in the polls in the late 1990s, Blair saw his public approval ratings crash, weighted down by an unpopular war and a wildly unpopular American president.
A Times of London poll found last week that 71 percent of British voters didn't trust Blair.
Though troubled at home, Blair leaves office a popular figure in the United States. A USA Today/Gallup poll in March found that 65 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Blair. Bush had a 35 percent approval rating in the same poll.
When asked by a British reporter whether he bears some responsibility for Blair's exit, Bush replied, "Could be," but he quickly added, "I don't know."
The president then admonished British reporters for prematurely writing Blair's political obituary.
"You know, it's interesting, like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you?" Bush said. "I mean, this—you don't understand how effective Blair is, I guess, because when we're in a room with world leaders and he speaks, people listen. And they, they view his opinion as considered and his judgment as sound."
Bush wasn't the only one to give the British press a tongue-lashing Thursday. His former United Nations ambassador, John Bolton, during an interview took verbal swipes at BBC radio presenter John Humphrys, who questioned whether the administration wasn't a "busted flush" after Iraq.
"I know, you're a superior Brit, aren't you?" Bolton said.
The interview rolled further downhill when Humphrys asked Bolton if embattled World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq war when he worked in the Pentagon, was "about to go" amid a pay raise scandal involving his girlfriend, who was a bank employee.
"I see you're a gravedigger as well," Bolton shot back.
Though Bush complained that reporters' questions implied that his meeting with Blair was a "farewell deal" when in fact it was a work session, the prime minister's presence in the White House had all the trappings of a last official visit.
Blair slept in the White House Wednesday night in the Queens' Bedroom, which Winston Churchill frequently used during World War II. Bush and Blair also had dinner alone in the White House residence.
Ironically, when Queen Elizabeth visited Washington last week she slept in Blair House, across the street from the White House, not in the Queens' Bedroom.
Addressing questions about whether he should allow Brown to assume office before June 27, Blair said he has too much work to do before relinquishing the keys to 10 Downing Street.
Blair will join Bush at an annual summit of the world's eight leading industrialized nations next month in Germany. Reaching agreement on efforts to reduce global warming will top the agenda. Blair also wants to make sure that the so-called G8 nations keep the commitments to help reduce debt and poverty in Africa, which they made when he hosted the summit two years ago in Scotland.
(Methodology for the polls cited in grafs 5 and 6: The Populous poll for The Times of London was conducted May 9-10 and based on interviews with 506 adults; they didn't publish their error margin. USA Today/Gallup poll was conducted March 2-4 and is based on interviews with 1,010 adults aged 18 and older. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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