I Did It My Way

Tony Blair is back where it all began--Myrobella, the house he bought after being elected to Parliament in 1983. It's a ramshackle place, half home, half office, tucked behind a row of old miners' cottages in the north of England. It would be quaint if it weren't for all the police, or if you didn't know President Bush's Marine One chopper once tore up the field next door.

He has claim to grander residences, of course--10 Downing Street and the country estate at Chequers. But this is his political home. With Blair on the way out of office, a fin de régime pall suffuses the place these days. It's inescapable even amid the hustle and bustle of his security detail and his traveling staff, weighed down by satchels and carryalls and, poignantly, the scuffed, iconic "red box" in which British government ministers carry their overnight paperwork. Blair has disappeared upstairs to change into jeans. His small downstairs study fills with people waiting to see him: John Burton, his local political agent; Alan Milburn MP, the Blairite "ultra" whose constituency adjoins Blair's; a NEWSWEEK correspondent and photographer, along with a few others. "The end is nigh," one of the visitors observes, in mock-apocalyptic tones. There's nervous laughter. Then Burton's wife, Lily, says quietly, "It does feel that way, doesn't it?"

It does. And Blair himself looks the part. Gone are the bright eyes and portcullis smile. His hair is graying and receding, his face etched with the rigors of five wars and a decade in power. The British prime minister is still fit and trim at 53. But more than any Western leader other than President George W. Bush, he has been worn down by the last four years. Like Bush, too, he has been defined by the grim war in Iraq. Former allies have deserted him. Political enemies, sensing weakness, hound him with charges and investigations. And this tragic denouement comes after such a remarkable political career.

Perhaps more than any British post-World War leader, save Margaret Thatcher, Blair personified his era, transforming the nation's politics and ushering in unrivaled prosperity. Whoever comes after will rule, to some degree, in his shadow. His weight in the world, the expansiveness and ambition of his world view, gave Britain its new post-imperial global role. And yet, for what is he most likely to be remembered, as least by the still-living generation? The mess that is Iraq, and the judgment of his countrymen that he abandoned good sense and followed, blindly, America into a needless and catastrophic war.

Of all the ironies, this one cuts most acutely. For the truth of Blair's downfall is that he was innocent of this most damning charge--that he was "Bush's poodle." Opinion surveys in Briton repeatedly show that it was his association with Bush that hurt Blair the most. And yet Blair was never a mere follower. To understand this man, one of his closest friends has said, you have to understand three things: that he's a lawyer, an interventionist and a not-so-closet cleric.

This is Blair's genetic trilogy. An Anglican who attends Catholic mass with his Catholic wife and children, Blair by no means wears his faith on his sleeve. But his faith has fired his belief in humanitarian intervention ever since he came to office in 1997. He had no doubt about the justness of certain causes: Operation Desert Fox in Iraq (1998), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000) and Afghanistan (2001). The 9/11 attacks only deepened Blair's convictions. To him, the war on terror is "a battle of values and for progress." "There's no holding him back," says one of his closest aides. "He's not a relativist at all," says another. "He's very Manichaean about it. It's cowboys versus Indians."

When Blair backed Bush against Iraq, he was if anything the "truer believer" of the two, recalls Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to Washington from 1997 until just before the invasion. While the manipulation of prewar intelligence always cast suspicion on Bush's true motives in going to war, for Blair the war fit right into his vision of himself as a liberal interventionist, using hard power in the service of good.

It's not surprising, then, that in the winter of his premiership Blair is digging in his heels. Over the last two months, Blair allowed NEWSWEEK extraordinary access to himself and his top lieutenants. Behind the scenes, as he crisscrossed the globe from Washington to Baghdad, Cairo to Dubai, he was at once reflective, combative, serene. At Myrobella, he lashed out at "the international community" for its "we must get out" response to the August 2003 truck bombing of the U.N. mission in Baghdad. With those who say Iraq is a failure, he was dismissive: "You waste time and energy in that kind of negativity." Concerned that future British leaders will be tempted to pull away from the United States, he warned: "If we distance ourselves from America, we might find that it's a long way back."

In opening its doors for NEWSWEEK, Downing Street's agenda was clear: to help rescue Blair's legacy. (Though, let it be said, the L-word is not to be uttered in the hallways of No. 10.) But by so emphatically insisting on staying the course in Iraq, and couching the fight against global terrorism in such trademark moralistic language, Blair risked looking like a man in denial. Indeed, as the evening at Myrobella progressed from tea to ale to a northern Labour man's requisite meal of fish and chips, Blair was eerily defiant. "That's the art of leadership," he said when dismissing the chances of an early Coalition withdrawal from Iraq. "To make sure that what shouldn't happen, doesn't happen."

Having watched his approval ratings sink to 26 percent, Blair says he has come to terms with his political fall from grace. "Provided you think you're right, you can get through it," he says. "I couldn't live with myself if I thought that these big strategic choices for my generation were there, and I wasn't even making them--or I was making them according to what was expedient rather than what I actually thought was right." Blair has said he will step down as prime minister this summer. As the clock ticks away, the true believer is taking over from the tough, pragmatic pol who is still accused of having no ideology other than "what works." This is a leader surrounded by doubters but free of self-doubt.

The war is not the only specter haunting Blair's final days. Like his first presidential friend, Bill Clinton, whose second term bogged down in the Monica Lewinsky affair, he is dogged by a miniscandal of his own--the so-called cash-for-peerages imbroglio in which donors allegedly gave big loans to the Labour Party in exchange for seats in the House of Lords. Blair has twice been questioned by the police, though not as a suspect. (The police have also said they will not be questioning him again.) Also like Clinton, he'll be damned before he lets his detractors take him down. Not long ago, a radio interviewer tried to draw Blair into a discussion about the campaign-finance investigation. Blair would have none of it: "Maybe this is how I have changed over the years ... I am not going to beg for my character in front of anyone."

Such defensiveness would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. In the aftermath of 9/11, Blair hopscotched across the Middle East, lining up support for America. In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak said Egypt stood "united and tough" against terrorism. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman was said to agree with Blair that "the 'Al Qaeda doctrine' is a perversion of all the true teachings of the Islamic faith." Blair got onto Al-Jazeera before the Americans, saying: "This is not about the West versus the Muslims. We do not want revenge, we want justice." Washington was impressed, and still is. "What Blair has done is restore Britain to a status of a world power," says a senior Bush-administration official who did not want to be named passing judgment on Blair. "It may be a world power lite, but it is a world power." He paused, then added that, of course, people don't see it that way now. "It's all shredded because of Iraq."

Times have changed, even if Blair hasn't. In December Blair took off for another whistle-stop tour of the greater Middle East--five capitals in five days. On the half-empty Boeing 747 Downing Street had chartered, the traveling press despaired because their editors were so uninterested. ("Can you keep the word 'Blair' out of your lede?" one scribbler was told by his news desk.) One day the prime minister's official spokesman gathered the journalists to say, "This is not a day for announcements." Translation: no news.

The stopover in Basra--Blair's traditional Christmastime visit with British troops--was the most telling. The number of British troops in Iraq has declined from a high of 46,000 during the invasion to about 7,000 now. If conditions in Basra improve for the Iraqi population, Downing Street has indicated that the British numbers could be further drawn down. Britain has lost 132 soldiers in Iraq (the United States, more than 3,000) and Blair has come under sharp criticism from senior retired military officers. He exposed British troops to "completely unacceptable risks" because Britain's military capacity has been so overstretched and underfunded by operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gen. Lord Guthrie, a former chief of Defense staff, said recently. Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, recently retired chief of the General staff, said Blair has been "asking too much" of the military. Blair's reception at Basra Air Station was cool. He signed a Challenger II tank with a felt-tip marker ("Good luck!"), shook hands and gave a speech. When he finished, barely half the soldiers gathered around him bothered to applaud.

Toward the end of the trip, there were moments of unintentional parody. In Jerusalem, a fixture in Blair's hotel suite was his friend, personal fund-raiser and special envoy to the Middle East, Lord Levy of Mill Hill. "Lord Cashpoint," as the tabloids call him, has been arrested and questioned twice in the cash-for-peerages probe; whenever a photographer appeared on Blair's floor at the King David Hotel, Levy would drop out of sight. (Levy denies any wrongdoing.) On the trip back to London, Blair's staff combed through press clippings from home, including a bleak review of Blair's foreign policy from Victor Bulmer-Thomas, the retiring director of the think tank Chatham House, who called the war in Iraq "a terrible mistake."

Blair has long been criticized for the "Tony knows best" dimension to his governance. In his final months in office, the moral tone has never been higher. In late January, he flew off to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. He was in his element, hobnobbing with the global elite. One evening he was feted at a small, private wine-and-canapé reception hosted by Bono. The U2 frontman opposed him over the war. Still, Blair knew he was among people who understood that he was fighting the good fight on other issues, like Africa and climate change: Bill and Melinda Gates; Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng; members of the Kennedy-Shriver clan; Paul Wolfowitz. "I divide people into two groups," Blair told them. "The optimists and the cynics." He didn't have to tell them which group he, and they, belonged to.

The next day, Blair gave the closing address at Davos, speaking directly to issues close to his heart--and, most likely, his future. He talked about the importance of winning a global trade deal that is tougher on rich countries and more generous with nations that are still developing. He talked about the promise of Africa, the challenges of climate change, the nature of power and the consequences of global interdependence. "Nations find that they need to confront and deal with challenges that simply do not admit of resolution without powerful alliances of other nations," he said, easing into a criticism of the United States. He was at his best--full of charisma, unshakable conviction and let's-do-this energy. The crowd loved it (except, perhaps, for those cynics). Blair may be leaving office, but he didn't sound like a man leaving the world stage.

At home, too, there are some signs that the gloom is lifting as Blair heads out the door of 10 Downing Street. The mere fact of his leaving takes some of the pressure off. In addition, as Britain scales back its troops, Iraq is fading as a red-hot political issue. Meanwhile, Blair's long-time political nemesis--Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown--has stopped sniping from the sidelines, confident at long last that in a few months Blair will be well and truly gone, and that he is the anointed successor.

As for Blair? Forget retirement. He's staying silent about his plans, but rumors range from university presidencies to big-money jobs in the financial world. Yet it's doubtful such workaday challenges will long hold Blair's interest. His "save the world" list, as critics call it, is as long as it's ever been--not unlike Bill Clinton's. Davos was listening. Will anybody else?