19.5.07

Fare thee well, 'President of Europe'

I moved to London almost 6 years ago, in August of 2001 - a 2 year stint during which I earned my MBA at the London Business School. It was quite a tumultuous time to live outside the US for the first time in my life. Case and point: while most North Jersey natives looked across the Hudson on September 11, 2001 and saw the Twin Towers come tumbling down, I was across the Atlantic, zipping up and down the Finchley Road, as the lease of my first flat had started on that fateful day.

I recall buying a calling card at a vendor in the O2 center, which would enable me to call back to the US for 2p per minute (since £1~$1.40 at the time - now that I am an exporter I curse the day the dollar will strengthen to that level again, although it served me well at the time given London's high cost of living). I got home at about 2:30 pm (5 hours ahead of East Coast time) and decided to give my family a ring and tell them I was settled in, especially so that they might ship over some warmer clothes.

Try as I might, again and again and again, no connection. What a scam, I thought - no wonder they charge only 3 cents a minute, you can never get through! So I called my sister Valerie, who was still at Boston College at the time. Same thing, no connection. (continued...)

Annoyed, I ran into my flatmate, coincidentally another New Jersey native, Andrew Kotliar, who had a bizarre text message saying, "umm, America is under attack right now." Huh? So we headed upstairs to begin setting up the flat, but before we could do so, Liam, the porter of Grove Hall Court, told us that something was going on in New York, and knowing that we were both from the area, advised us to turn on the TV and get up to speed.

We didn't have a TV set up yet, so we went down to the London Business School and watched the whole thing unfold on CNN. It was like a movie. Although, it was then clear to me why I wasn't able to make a phone connection to either New Jersey or Boston!

Anyway, in the aftermath of that day, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair became a very close ally of President Bush - in a primetime address before a joint session of Congress just a few days afterward, which Blair attended, Bush singled him out and stated:
"America has no truer friend than Great Britain. Once again, we are joined together in a great cause -- so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity of purpose with America. Thank you for coming, friend."
Our porter Liam mocked Blair, saying that his country's head of state was acting like Bush's lapdog and that Britain was just riding America's coattails. Now, despite my opposition to the Iraq War and his slightly more eloquent rephrasing of neoconservative delusions, there was always something about Blair that appealed to me, probably because of a shared taste in music, as explained by this article about Blair's 50th Birthday in 2003.

21st Century Schizoid PM jams out on a TelecasterAnd yet it is one of King Crimson's songs that still weighs heavily on the prime minster. "I saw him not long ago and we spent about 20 minutes talking about the music we listened to at college," said [Blair's bandmate from ages past]. "We were talking about 21st Century Schizoid Man, which had an incredible guitar solo in the middle of it."

...it's the guitar solo in the song that is more important to Blair. It is howling, angular, eerie, and lots of other words that one wouldn't have thought applied to the prime minister.

(neocon promoter or not, you gotta love him rocking out on a Telecaster)

On Blair's international image, I am reminded of the visit of my high school friend Chris Hunter in late 2001, as we sat in Cafe Rouge on St. John's Wood High Street, and stumbled into a hilarious discussion with a rather obnoxious English young lady. She recounted for us her impressions of our countrymen from a recent trip stateside, and we got quite a laugh out of her mocking Americans for referring to Blair as the "President of Europe".

Also in late 2001, my parents came to visit London, and their visit overlapped with Blair's trip to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. I was reminded of that recently after reading a piece by Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed, who was also in London at the time:

"Assad shattered the prime minister's imagination when he said, 'We cannot accept what we see every day on our television screens, the killing of innocent civilians. There are hundreds dying every day.'

...He linked the Palestinian groups, both those residing in Syria and the occupied territories, to European resistance fighters in World War II seeking to liberate their lands from Nazi occupation. Assad argued that in Europe the great symbol of resistance had been Charles de Gaulle. 'Can anyone accuse de Gaulle of being a terrorist? No way.'

Blair came to Syria with all the arrogance that Churchill once had, yet seemed to forget that he was not Churchill and that this was not the Great Britain of 1945."

Tony Blair and Bashar Assad in DamascusI, too, recall the newsstand headlines: "Syria Scorns Blair Appeal", and thinking oh, no, what did he say??? But my colleagues at the London Business School were intrigued, as it received front page coverage in the Financial Times. "Wow, he's really letting him have it!" said one friend. "Well, he (Assad) is quite handsome!" said another.

Actually, Blair showed character by willingly submitting himself to somewhat of an ambush in Damascus, and being cordial enough to host Assad in London for a "rematch" the following year (at which he was far more polite to his guest). I cited the confidence exemplified by Assad's approach to Blair's visit during a discussion with Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid last year in Washington about the importance of image in Syria, recalling Assad's swagger as he approached the podium preparing for the ambush.

Anyway, Blair steps down on June 27, and President Bush does not seem too thrilled about it. During a Rose Garden Press Conference last week, he was pressed by a British reporter (since American reporters are all but incapable of asking tough questions) about whether he felt he was to blame for Blair's departure:

"The question is, am I to blame for his leaving? I don't know...You know, it's interesting, like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you? 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.

And I find it interesting the first two questions are, is this the right guy? Well, he happens to be your Prime Minister, but more importantly, he is a respected man in the international arena. People admire him. Even if they may not agree with him a hundred percent, they admire him a lot. And it's not just the American President who admires him; a lot of people admire him. And so he's effective. He's effective because he is -- his recommendations to solve problems are sound. He's also effective because he is the kind of person who follows through.

There's a lot of blowhards in the political process, you know, a lot of hot-air artists, people who have got something fancy to say. Tony Blair is somebody who actually follows through with his convictions, and therefore, is admired in the international community.

So I guess this is an appropriate question to ask -- right guy, is he still standing -- yes. This guy is a very strong, respected leader, and he's absolutely the right guy for me to be dealing with."

I guess "confusion" will be his epitaph. In any case, fare thee well, 'President of Europe'.

But one has to wonder what Bush would do if the Conservative Party, aka the Tories, in Britain (Blair is from the Labour Party, analagous to the Democrats) were not so hopelessly inept and used their linguistic elegance to pick apart the neoconservative slogans that pass for global strategy in Bush's circles.

Blair managed to steal the Tories' thunder on major issues like the Iraq War (if it was totally unconnected to America's interest, what does that say for the UK?) and Conservative MPs were obliged to play along - thus, they have no meaningful opposition positions to take.

A true conservative party in the UK has gone extinct, says British conservative writer Peter Hitchens. "Because of the cultural, educational, and moral changes they failed to resist in the 1960s and 1970s, Tories stopped passing on their values to their own children." He continues in his appraisal of new conservative leader David Cameron:
"A recent speech on foreign policy, in which he appeared to distance himself from the neoconservative stance embraced by his party some time ago, was cunningly nuanced—like much that Cameron does—to give a false impression of his true position. He knows that the neocon association is a liability. But the speech did not alter the party's ongoing support for the Iraq War or the increasingly questionable British intervention in Afghanistan...Instead it was endorsing neoconservatism and then trying to distance it from the conduct of foreign policy by George Bush and Tony Blair."
So much for Britain. Now, what about a true conservative party in the USA?