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Published: Wednesday, 12/27/2006

Blair 'stays the course'

BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a surprise pre-Christmas visit to Iraq in a dramatic show of support both for British troops serving there and for a foreign military presence in the country - "until the job is done."

His words and their underlying message reflect those of President Bush, who for now sticks with an indeterminate time line for ending American involvement.

It was a personally risky journey for Mr. Blair. Shortly before, and only a mile or so away, gunmen seized 25 employees of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. That physical danger aptly mirrored the political risk he took when he threw his country's support behind Mr. Bush and American policies in Iraq.

Mr. Blair escaped unscathed from Baghdad, but his political career has been critically wounded by his continued, and for many of his countrymen, unfathomable support for U.S. policies. He has already announced his intention to step down within a year.

On Tuesday, the think-tank Chatham House harshly criticized Mr. Blair, saying the "root failure" of his policy has been the inability to meaningfully influence the Bush Administration despite the sacrifices made by Britain. It also claimed Britain's close ties to the United States had harmed its influence in the Middle East.

Responding, Mr. Blair was unequivocal in his belief that "Britain having a strong relationship with the United States of America has been a cornerstone of our policy for years," adding that if that relationship were to end "we will pay a very heavy price in the future."

It is perplexing what has brought Mr. Blair to this point, the leader of a left-leaning political party who has allied himself with a conservative U.S. president and been cut adrift by his own members of Parliament.

The war is unpopular in Britain, as it is here. But instead of changing tack to accommodate the prevailing political winds, Mr. Blair, like Mr. Bush, has - yes, here it comes - stayed the course.

Britain has suffered, to a lesser degree but suffered nonetheless, as a result of its engagement in the war, in the loss of life among both its military and civilians on London subway trains and buses. Only recently, a threat was uncovered to attack planes flying from London to the United States. Clearly Mr. Blair's commitment to a British presence on the front lines has put Britons in harm's way.

His dedication to the transatlantic alliance is laudable. Britain and the United States are long-standing allies that need each other. And it certainly is remarkable that a commonality of purpose could be found between a left-leaning Labor Party premier and a conservative Republican President - although this has never had the appearance of a partnership of equals.

But Mr. Blair's belief in the alliance, and in the military mission in Iraq, is proving to be his political Achille's heel. So Mr. Bush soldiers on, while his true ally prepares to leave - in truth another victim of the war.

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