Blair makes farewell White House call

George W. Bush, Tony Blair
President Bush, left, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands Thursday after their joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the final White House visit of his tenure on Thursday, marking a friendship with President Bush that many believe tarnished the legacy of the once-popular British leader.

Blair’s visit, designed to honor the Bush-Blair partnership, produced no major policy statements. The two men discussed a range of issues Thursday, including the genocide in Darfur, global climate change, which Bush called “a serious issue,” and the upcoming G-8 meeting.

Blair, the staunchest of U.S. allies on Iraq, predicted that Britain would continue to stand side by side with the United States after he leaves office. He said he did not regret his decision to join Bush in supporting the war in Iraq and “I believe that we will remain a staunch and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism.”

“Thank you for the strength of your leadership over the past few years,” Blair said to the president. “The United States and Britain is a relationship that is in the interest of our two countries, and the peace and stability of the wider world. I’ve never doubted its importance.”

“Our two nations should always work together,” Blair said at the Rose Garden conference. “It’s served us well in the past. It’s a relationship that is about a shared future.”

Blair, once enormously popular in his country, saw his popularity tumble largely over his alliance with Bush on Iraq.

Bush praises prime minister
The president praised Blair, calling him extremely effective as a leader and “dogged” when he gets on a subject. “I appreciate the fact that he can see beyond the horizon. And that’s the kind of leadership the world needs,” Bush said.

Asked by a British reporter if Blair was the right person for Bush to be dealing with now, given that he will leave office on June 27, Bush said absolutely. “You’re trying to do a tap dance on his political grave,” the president said.

Blair said he was proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks: “I admire him as a president and I regard him as a friend.”

Bush voiced optimism that he could on a stalled $124.2 billion spending bill to help pay for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congress and the White House have been at loggerheads over war spending since earlier this month when Bush vetoed the measure after the Democratic-controlled Congress added provisions for troop withdrawals to begin Oct. 1.

Bush said he had instructed Joshua Bolten, his chief of staff, to stay in close touch with congressional leaders. He said he agrees with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that time is of the essence. And he said he respected the desire of members to include benchmarks in the bill that the Iraqi government should meet.

“I’m optimistic we can do so,” Bush said.

Regrets for Wolfowitz
Answering reporters, Bush seemed resigned to the possibility that World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz could over conflict-of-interest charges involving his girlfriend.

“I regret that it has come to this,” Bush said, as the bank’s 24-member board was set to resume deliberations on Wolfowitz’s fate.

Wolfowitz and the Bush administration were seeking a face-saving deal with the board that would allow him to resign under his own terms and escape some blame for the furor involving his girlfriend’s compensation.

Pressure on Wolfowitz to step down has grown since Monday’s release of a bank panel report on his handling of the 2005 pay package of bank employee Shaha Riza.

Wolfowitz contends he acted in good faith.

Defense of Iraq war policy
Blair, noting that he could hear anti-war demonstrators outside the White House, defended anew his decision to join the U.S. and go to war in Iraq — even though it has proven unpopular in both countries.

Even if people disagree with remaining in Iraq until victorious, “at least people understand that there is a battle we are fighting around the world today. ... You don’t win those battles by being a fair-weather friend to your ally.”

Blair had good words for Gordon Brown, Britain’s Treasury chief, who was confirmed Thursday as the next leader of the Labour Party. Colleagues in the House of Commons overwhelmingly backed him as the only candidate to be the new prime minister.

Brown has made few of his foreign policy positions clear, and he is not expected to cultivate a friendship with Bush in the way that Blair has.

“I wish him well, I believe he would make a great prime minister,” Blair said of his successor.

Bush, however, acknowledged that he really didn’t know Brown, although the two have met. “I hope to help him in office the way Tony Blair helped me,” Bush said.

“Will I miss working with Tony Blair? You bet. Can I work with the next guy? Of course,” Bush said.

Queen's Bedroom
Blair began his visit Wednesday with a private, working dinner at the White House. That was followed by a rare overnight stay for a foreign leader in the U.S. executive mansion. He stayed in the Queen’s Bedroom that was used by Winston Churchill during the former British leader’s frequent World War II-era visits to Washington.

His White House visit was one of a series of meetings with foreign leaders during a carefully choreographed exit after his announcement last week that he would step down as prime minister on June 27.

“I think the visit is more sentimental and social than substantive,” said Henry Catto, a former U.S. ambassador to London and current chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

As Blair prepares to step aside for his successor, he has a limited ability to reach substantial policy decisions in talks with Bush.

His standing at home has been severely undermined by the unpopularity of the Iraq war and a perception that his steadfast support of Bush’s policies have not produced reciprocal results for Britain. Britain is by far the largest non-U.S. contributor of forces to the war.

“It has been a significant part of Blair’s undoing that he was seen as being so close and unquestionably loyal to Bush,” said Adam Ward, executive director of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

Prosperity at home
But Blair has overseen a period of prosperity at home and success in the Northern Ireland peace talks.

The Bush-Blair talks may focus on negotiations between the United States and European countries leading to the Group of Eight gathering of major industrialized countries in Germany early next month, where Blair will make one of his last appearances on the world stage.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is hosting the G-8 meeting, has made clear that she was looking for the Bush administration to move toward greater cooperation with other countries in fighting global warming by committing to mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. So far, administration officials have resisted.

Climate change a priority for Europe
“What the prime minister will be saying is that we believe there is a growing chance of involving India and China in a genuine international consensus about how we deal with climate change,” Blair’s spokesman said on condition that he not be named, in line with government policy.

As Bush looks for new allies among European leaders during the last years of his own term, divergence on global warming is likely to remain a theme. Both Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, sworn in as president of France on Wednesday, have made a priority of the issue.

While Bush has seen some improvement in relations with Germany, and possibly now France under Sarkozy, Blair’s departure creates some uncertainty in relations between London and Washington.