Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair drew three standing ovations when he addressed the joint House-Senate Republican retreat Thursday with a speech that one lawmaker likened to the oratory of Winston Churchill.
Blair’s speech, which was closed to the public and the media, included a call for America to lead on the world stage rather than to try to be loved there, according to a person in attendance. Rep. Tom Cole said Blair focused on the importance of fighting against extremism around the world at an event said to be well attended by members and staffers alike. “Tony Blair just gave one of the most masterful presentations on the spread of Islamic terrorism,” the Oklahoma Republican said, calling it “Churchillian.”
Another person in the room told CQ Roll Call a “handful” of questions from lawmakers followed the formal remarks about the Middle East, including about Blair’s views on President Barack Obama’s performance in world affairs and addressing threats from radicals.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Blair gave an “excellent” presentation about fighting terrorism.
“He contends that … countries throughout the world, freedom-loving countries, are going to have to work together. There is going to have to be a sustained effort, it’s going to take time. There is both a military aspect to it, you have to stand up to Islamic extremism and terrorism where it occurs,” Hoeven said. “And you also have to have the aspect where you reach out and connect with people in the Middle East on the idea of freedom and liberty and human rights.”
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn was live-tweeting snippets of Blair’s remarks, including a comment about the humanitarian crisis caused by the myriad challenges in Syria. According to Cornyn, Blair said half of the country’s population has left as Syria has been torn by torn by fighting between rebel groups; the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A story published by The Guardian said Blair stressed the importance of having “allies within Islam itself” in the fight against terrorism perpetrated by the minority of Muslim radicals, and he reportedly sounded upbeat about the chances that stronger alliances could be forged within the region.
“We haven’t caused terrorism but we are caught up in it,” Cornyn quoted Blair as saying, also pointing to an internal “struggle” that Islam faces.
The speech came just ahead of a visit to the White House by current British Prime Minister David Cameron. In a joint opinion piece for The Times of London, Obama and Cameron said their two countries, would “continue to stand together against those who threaten our values and our way of life.”
“Whether we are facing lone fanatics or terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (Isil) or Boko Haram we will not be cowed by extremists. We will defeat these barbaric killers and their distorted ideology, which tries to justify the murder of innocents, whether children attending school in Peshawar, or girls forced to become suicide bombers in northern Nigeria,” the leaders wrote.
Sen. John McCain introduced Blair to the large crowd and Blair started off with praise for the Arizona Republican, who became Senate Armed Services chairman earlier this month. One of the people present said the questions for Blair included one about the importance of spending money on national defense, which is a topic McCain frequently discusses around the Capitol.
Blair’s address to the gathering of Republican lawmakers, in which he focused on what The Guardian said was termed a “generational” struggle demanding of American leadership, garnered far less attention than tactical debates among Republicans about how to best handle looming challenges at home, including funding the Department of Homeland Security.
Still the Republican majorities on both ends of the Capitol will be spending an extensive portion of the next two years engaged in foreign policy debates with Obama. Considering increased sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program and a formal authorization for use of military force against the terror group ISIS look likely to be early agenda items at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under its new chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“The president has given the nod and plans to work with us soon on … an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. We hope that is actually going to occur,” Corker told Bloomberg TV while at the retreat in Hershey, Pa.
In addition, the Senate Banking Committee has called a hearing for the day of Obama’s State of the Union address to discuss Iran sanctions. Obama reiterated his opposition to additional sanctions legislation Thursday at the Senate Democratic retreat in Baltimore.
As those debates on Iran and ISIS get underway in earnest, Blair’s call for more muscular American leadership, coming during what people in the room called a powerful speech, could have resonance with members.
Hoeven said Blair “made the analogy that that is how we confronted communism.”
“During the Cold War there was both a military component … but then you also have to demonstrate the benefit of superior ideas and that it is in the interest of people regardless of religion … regardless of ethnicity or where they live,” Hoeven explained.
Matt Fuller and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.
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