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LONDON — For anyone with a sense of history, it is impossible not to admire the tireless conviction and the lonely valor of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

His argument for the use of force against Iraq seems to switch about constantly. He has failed to convince millions of protest marchers, the leaders of the Anglican Church, the bulk of his own political party, his largest European partners including the wily French President Jacques Chirac, the pope and most of West European public opinion.

But there is something remarkable about his support of U.S. President George W. Bush and his iron determination to maintain it; it seems to come from another age. There is no doubt that even the most hawkish Americans would hesitate to go it alone if the British commitment faltered. All semblance of an international coalition would be lost.

Of course, there are other stalwarts standing by the United States — including Japan and the smaller countries of Central Europe. But Blair’s government has provided Washington with the strongest support, sending a large number of troops to the Persian Gulf region to support the growing American force there. It is Blair alone among European leaders who seems to share Bush’s Herculean vision of a crusade to rid the world of rogue states.

So upon the relatively young shoulders of the British prime minister rests one of the momentous decisions of our times: to launch with America a gigantic and preemptive armada against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his regime; and to do so, if necessary, without another resolution from the United Nations and even without the prior categorical authority of his own Parliament at Westminster.

It is a huge gamble. The risk is not so much in the military operation. The comparison between the massive Anglo-American force assembling in Kuwait, loaded with deadly high-tech devices, and the small and under-equipped Iraqi Army, much of which may not even prove reliable, means that the military sweep into Iraqi territory will prove unstoppable. This would be the case even in the unlikely event that Ankara withholds permission for the allies to stage an attack from Turkish territory.

The problems will begin when and if Hussein, in the last throes of a madman, uses his still-hidden chemical and biological weapons; when and if he sets all his own oil wells on fire; when and if fanatical anti-Americans rise up in other Persian Gulf states; when and if a vast humanitarian disaster, with millions of fleeing, starving refugees, envelops the Middle East; when and if occupied Iraq dissolves in a fury of intertribal revenge and separatism; and when and if al-Qaeda, the worldwide octopus of terror, finds new adherents and new strength to commit atrocities inside Western capitals.

None or all of these things could happen. The politically “safe” course would be to hover on the sidelines, half hoping that the Americans draw back and let the U.N. weapons inspectors carry on with their interminable, and probably fruitless, work and to sound halfway supportive so as to be on the winning side in case the Americans triumph. But Blair has abandoned such an inglorious line. He has put his political career on the line.

The half-whispered question even among close supporters is “What is driving him?” and “Why has he chosen, at the height of a relatively successful premiership, to choose such a lone and risky path?” The right answer is probably the simplest one — that he believes with almost evangelical fervor that the Hussein regime is the embodiment of badness, that no Middle East peace is possible while it remains intact, that Hussein is at the center of the new global consortium of terror, and that with the passing of every day that Hussein remains in power the chance of another 9/11-style attack grows.

His articulation of this core belief has been confusing. First, the priority was upholding U.N. authority; next it was disarming Iraq after 12 years of defiance; next it was “the moral case for war against a tyranny”; then it was “removing Saddam,” thus echoing American longings for “regime change.”

But if the words have been unpersuasive, the actions have been unmistakable. Britain is about to commit its armed forces to a war that only a miracle can now avert. And it is doing so largely through the will and conviction of one man. That, as Blair sees it, is the massive burden of true leadership. Commentators can analyze and qualify and equivocate, but leaders must decide. Right or wrong, it is an astonishing display of political courage in a world where such qualities have been all but forgotten.

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