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Middle East proves undoing of U.K.'s Blair
Steve Goldstein
September 7, 2006

LONDON (MarketWatch) -- Tony Blair may be the most elected prime minister his Labour Party has ever had, but he's deeply unpopular within his own party, and a rebellion from within his own ranks has forced him to announce he'll quit within the year.

From across the Atlantic, his unpopularity may seem puzzling.

Blair, as seen in any joint press conference with U.S. President Bush, articulates the reasoning behind the war against terrorism as well as any modern politician.

On the home front, the U.K. economy has strengthened during his tenure, owing to a combination of his relatively pro-business approach and massive government spending.

He's also moved to stem the societal fallout throughout Britain from the breakdown of the family, with "antisocial behavior orders," or ASBOs as they are known, becoming a hallmark of the New Labour approach to governing. These are penalties dished out to hooded youth nationwide for persistent, troublesome behavior, including bullying, throwing garbage and abusing neighbors.

In the U.S., that would probably make Blair the ideal -- a politician who straddles the political fence. It's little wonder that Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed Blair's tenure during the prime minister's recent visit to California.

But in the U.K., voters and his political party alike have, quite simply, had it.

So to end recent, intense speculation about his departure date, Blair said Thursday he'd go within a year, although he failed to set an exact date. He's been prime minister since 1997. See full story.

Blair's critics say the success of the domestic economy is just as much, if not more, the responsibility of Chancellor Gordon Brown, Blair's likely successor.

ASBOs, meanwhile, haven't brought law and order to the streets, nor have they been much of a vote-getter, and are more the butt of popular jokes.

And with terrorism recruits seemingly plentiful in the local population, the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacerbated, rather than limited, the threat of terrorism, Blair's critics say.

Blair's recent support for Israel's military action in Lebanon, which again was out of touch with voters (and, polls suggest, the American population, too), may have been the final nail in the coffin.

Israel's failure to achieve its military goals against Hezbollah made Blair's position look all the more misguided.

In his defense, Blair may argue that his Middle East policy is just an extension of his natural "third way," or middle-of-the-road, agenda.

To paraphrase a former Blair slogan, he tried to be tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism. Blair sees what he calls an "arc of extremism" stretching out across the Middle East and touching countries far outside that region as the root cause of terrorism and not, as others here have argued, a byproduct.

Hence, Blair saw a need to get rid of Saddam Hussein, un-root the Taliban in Afghanistan and defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon, even if two of those three are connected to extremism generally rather than al-Qaida in particular.

Blair certainly wasn't the first prime minister undone by the Middle East, and it's doubtful he'll be the last. Anthony Eden is perhaps best remembered for his role in the politically disastrous Suez Crisis of 1956, a conflict fought on Egyptian territory that pitted Egypt against an alliance of France, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Brown on deck

Brown, a relative unknown in international circles, is all but certain to be Blair's replacement, though Home Secretary John Reid, a close Blair ally, also has a slim chance.

On the economy, Brown's track record is reasonably clear. He's been in charge of Britain's treasury since Blair was swept into power in 1997. Brown is a big spender, but he's largely kept his commitments to limit borrowing to investment over the course of the economic cycle.

But Brown does have a reputation for standing to the left of Blair, and his professed allegiance to the New Labour cause always has been doubted.

His foreign-policy views are more mysterious.

Should he take power next summer, as the time table suggests, Brown wouldn't have to waste much effort building a relationship with Bush, who would be near the end of his term. So it's unlikely he'd get the poodle moniker that's dogged Blair.

That said, Brown hasn't hesitated to fund any of Britain's military actions around the world, and he used one of his few speeches that wasn't about the economy to emphasize that global terrorism remains one of the world's key challenges.

And, as a steadfast opponent to Britain's joining the euro, he's unlikely to shift the U.K. compass much toward Paris, even if doesn't want to be seen as overly close to Washington.

Brown looks like he'll be the John Major to Tony Blair's Margaret Thatcher -- quite a bit less dynamic, a bit less of an American ally, and a great deal more inward-looking.

That may be what the Labour Party wants. But they should be careful about what they ask for -- John Major, after all, only won a single election. See Global Markets section. End of Story

Steve Goldstein is MarketWatch's London bureau chief.

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