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Tony Blair Steps Down With Mixed Legacy After 10 Years in Power


British Prime Minister Tony Blair steps down June 27th after a decade in power during which he re-energized his Labor Party, embarked on an interventionist foreign policy and forged ever-closer ties with the United States. But, as Mr. Blair hands over the reins of power one damaging decision follows him out of office, his unfailing support for the war in Iraq. VOA's Sonja Pace takes a look at the Blair legacy in this report from London.

He burst onto the political stage - 43 years old - charismatic, smiling, articulate and full of energy to take Britain into the 21st Century.

After a sweeping election victory in 1997, Tony Blair promised a new direction.

"You, the British people have given us the chance to serve you," said Mr. Blair. "You have put your trust in us and we say to you - we shall repay that trust for you. We govern for you."

He promised to revitalize the country with a dynamic, efficient approach more in tune with the new global economy. He vowed more effective social programs and brought a new, relaxed style to Number 10 Downing Street.

But, it wasn't just style and an ability to connect with average people that made Tony Blair popular. Blair biographer Anthony Seldon says it was also plain political skill.

"He won more elections than any other Labor prime minister, he changed the face of the Labor Party, he produced peace in Northern Ireland after many years of fighting," he noted.

The Northern Ireland peace process of 1998 came to fruition less than two months ago with the formation of a unity Catholic-Protestant government for the province. Mr. Blair was in Belfast to clinch the deal.

"Northern Ireland was synonymous with conflict," he said. "People felt that it could not be done, indeed sometimes that it should not be done, that the compromises involved were too ugly. Yet in the end, it was done and this holds a lesson for conflict everywhere."

Dealing with conflicts near and abroad became a cornerstone of Mr. Blair's interventionist foreign policy. In 1999 - he argued forcefully for the international community to intervene in Kosovo. And, Britain's military intervention in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in 2000 is credited with helping bring to an end a brutal civil war there.

Mr. Blair won a landslide second term in office in 2001, but then the world changed on September 11.

"The full horror of what has happened in the United States earlier today is now becoming clearer," he said. "It is hard even to contemplate the utter carnage and terror which has engulfed so many innocent people."

Mr. Blair stood with U.S. President George Bush, forging ever-closer ties between London and Washington. He was instrumental in making the case for action against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and went along willingly into Iraq.

"Oh, he was completely willing," added Anthony Seldon. "He was convinced that British interests would best be served by getting right up close to the White House, working very closely with the president, seeing him often, having weekly conferences on video with the president and that this would best exert British influence."

While Mr. Blair is widely credited with having tempered the Bush administration's go-it-alone approach in the early preparations for Iraq, he has been harshly criticized for not being able to influence how the war and the aftermath were handled.

Michael Brown, former conservative member of parliament and now political columnist for the Independent newspaper, tells VOA, Iraq was Tony Blair's biggest mistake.

"His enduring legacy, in terms of British public life, will, I'm afraid be Iraq," he noted. "Iraq will be engraved on Tony Blair's political tombstone when the history books of his premiership are written."

Iraq took its toll on Mr. Blair's popularity and still - he won a third term in office in 2005, even though the Labor party took a beating. Then in July terrorist attacks on London's transport system claimed the lives of 52 commuters.

Speculation was rife that Tony Blair would not last to the next election scheduled for 2010. That speculation proved correct.

"Today, I announce my decision to step down from the leadership of the Labor Party," he said. "Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong, but believe one thing if nothing else, I did what I thought was right for our country."

It is too early to tell how Tony Blair will eventually be remembered, but for now Iraq casts a long shadow over his legacy.

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