It must have seemed so enviable to Tony Blair and his bright young things when they first went to Washington, so glamorous, so thrilling. They arrived as the Friends of Bill, delighted that their hosts were, in that embarrassing phrase New Labour folk would never use out loud, PLU: people like us.
Their counterparts were young, bright, tough-minded, graduates of all the best universities: Harvard, Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholars. Liberal, of course. But not wet liberal, you understand. Tough on the causes of things, yes, but tough on the things, too. Into triangulation, as Dick Morris, one of Bill's less respectable friends, liked to put it. Or, as you might say, being all things to all men.
Washington is such a seductive place for those who are hooked on politics. The air is heady with power. There is the illusion that a young, confident president and his even younger, more confident aides can accomplish whatever he wants.
True, there are those constitutional checks and balances. But it is so tempting, if you are in the Kennedy White House in 1961, or the Reagan White House in 1981, or the Clinton White House (AM - Ante Monicam), to believe that the West Wing can brush the boring constitutional restraints aside.
It wasn't at all like the fusty old House of Commons, or that infuriating old British cabinet government, where you have to listen to old plonkers banging on about "this great movement of ours". The Blairs and the Blairites went to Washington, and found it the city of their dreams. How they must have fantasised about creating an executive presidency for themselves, just like Bill and Hillary's, in Number 10 Downing Street. Never mind rebranding Britain, let's rebrand the British political system.
Among Godfrey Hodgsons articles in openDemocracy on American politics and global influence:
"Can America go modest?"
"After Katrina, a government adrift"
( September 2005)
"Oil and American politics"
"The death of American politics"
"American politics: corrosion by the dollar"
(6 November 2006)
"Washington: the earth moves"
(9 November 2006)
"America against itself"
(19 February 2007)
Check out Bill Clinton's millennium state-of-the-union speech. All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The stock market had abolished the laws of gravity, and America had not an enemy in the world. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be Tony Blair was very heaven.
Then, in the 2000 presidential election, the heavens fell in.
Suddenly not Bill and his friends, but George Walker Bush, the governor of Texas, and his conservative friends were in the White House.
I have it on excellent authority that on his last day in the White House Bill Clinton, with the kindliest of intentions, beseeched Tony Blair to get along with President Bush, whatever he did.
The fog of ignorance
Now it is indeed vital for any prime minister of Great Britain to be on the best possible terms with the president of the United States. That has been the case since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson first demonstrated, not without a certain Presbyterian brutality, that the president of the United States could literally destroy the financial credit of the British government overnight.
Since then, Britain has needed the United States as ally, banker, bodyguard, role model and best friend. With small exceptions, the United States has indeed been a true and loyal friend to Britain over nine decades, and that is all the more remarkable because in the 19th century few Americans had much good to say about Britain: the enemy, as it were, of last resort.
It has followed that the successful British prime ministers, by and large, were the ones who had the good sense to get on well with the United States. But that did not mean that a British prime minister had to cosy up to a president whose fundamental beliefs were as, well, foreign, as George W Bush's.
There is a peculiarity here. Just as Franklin Roosevelt was more popular in Britain than in the United States, or rather had no enemies in Britain, whereas in America he had bitter, suspicious and jaundiced enemies to his dying day, so some British prime ministers have been more popular in the United States than at home. They include Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher - and Tony Blair. And that led to Blair's catastrophic misunderstanding.
Tony Blair either did not understand, or did not care, that the beliefs and aims of men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are utterly incompatible with the beliefs of the British Labour Party, and indeed of thumping majorities of the British electorate.
Tony Blair did not understand what manner of man George W Bush is. He seems not even to have understood that he comes from a very different political tradition from that which bred William Jefferson Clinton. He made the appalling blunder of not understanding that Bush and his circle are deadly serious about their beliefs, and that one of those beliefs is that it doesn't matter a damn what foreigners think or do (see "'Yo, Blair'", 19 July 2006).
Power and its limits
Now you may say: Whoa! Surely Blair had good advice? He may not have understood the modern American conservative ascendancy, but doubtless the foreign office must have educated him? Surely the embassy, the great Lutyens country house, anchored on Massachusetts Avenue, just down the hill from Dick Cheney, explained about conservatives, and neo-conservatives, and American exceptionalism, and what is meant by the polite academic phrase, "neo-Wilsonian foreign policy", embraced by Clinton as well as Bush?
"Neo-Wilsonian foreign policy" means that the United States will use its military and economic power to bring its version of democracy and its brand of capitalism to as much of the world as possible. It means in practice that the sun must never sink on the American empire, or what the neo-conservatives called the New American Century, and that no foreigner is going to tell America what to do.
Our strength is as the strength of ten, as the poet said, because our heart is pure. Or in the less poetic language of Crawford, Texas, we know who are the good guys and the bad guys.
Also on the legacy of Tony Blair in openDemocracy:
Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)
Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"
(20 December 2006)
Felix Blake, "Blair's foreign-policy legacy" (21 December 2006)
Brian Brivati, "The Blair audit: war, human rights, liberalism"
(8 January 2007)
Tina Beattie, "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)
Tony Curzon Price, "Tony Blair and centralisation"
(20 February 2007)
Now, in 2007, those boring constitutional checks and balances, have worked again. James Madison, chief designer of the constitution, was no mean artificer. The American people have spoken, and once again the American constitution has worked as it is meant to work.
Like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair seems not to have understood the spirit, the sheer enduring effectiveness of the American constitution, cunningly designed so that no president can forever ignore the Congress or the courts.
Now, thanks to the constitution, George W Bush is no more omnipotent than was William J Clinton. And once again the occupant, the temporary occupant, of Number Ten, has got it wrong. At first, to be sure, he thought it was time to go with Jim Baker over his Iraq Study Group report. But now President Bush has snubbed Jim Baker. Heaven knows the precise outline of the relationship between the president and his father's consigliere. Certainly it is apparent that Tony Blair didn't have a clue about that.
What it amounts to, I'm afraid, is that one of two things must be true. Either Tony Blair doesn't know or doesn't care about what Republican conservatives stand for, their commitment to favouring the very rich at the expense of everyone else, their unconcealed contempt for foreigners and their shameless advocacy of ruthless corporate self-interest. Or he is perfectly happy with the worldview of Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, and the forty-third president of the United States. In either case he has demonstrated that, however popular he may be in Washington, he is not fit to be the prime minister of Great Britain.