Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair will receive the 2010 Liberty Medal in September in recognition of his conflict-resolution efforts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Africa, and for opposing religious extremism around the world.
Former President Bill Clinton, who shared the Liberty Medal himself four years ago for his humanitarian work after leaving the White House, will bestow the city's most prestigious honor on Blair on Sept. 13 in ceremonies at the National Constitution Center, which Clinton now chairs.
"It was a privilege to work with my friend Tony Blair to help end 30 years of sectarian violence and broker a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, to stop the killing in and mass exodus from Kosovo, and to develop policies that would improve living conditions for people in both our countries," Clinton said in a statement yesterday.
"Now, as a private citizen, Tony continues to demonstrate the same leadership, dedication and creativity in promoting economic opportunity in the Middle East and the resolution of conflicts rooted in religion around the world."
Blair, 57, who led Britain's Labor government from 1997 to 2007, is the 28th person or organization to share the Liberty Medal since it was established in 1989 as the centerpiece of the city's July Fourth ceremonies.
The Constitution Center took responsibility for the award - and fundraising for its $100,000 prize - in 2006 and shifted the event to September to commemorate the approval of the U. S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
Under the leadership of the late Martin Meyerson, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, the medal-selection committee established an extraordinary record, honoring six recipients who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Blair's personal image as a peacemaker was burnished by success in Northern Ireland in the 1990s but subsequently marred by his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now the subject of a formal public inquiry set up by Blair's successor, Gordon Brown.
Despite widespread criticism in Britain, which withdrew its last troops from Iraq last year, Blair declared in January that he had no regrets about sending British soldiers to Iraq.
"The decision I took - and frankly would take again - was: If there was any possibility that he [Saddam Hussein] could develop weapons of mass destruction, we would stop him. It was my view then and that is my view now," Blair told the official inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot.
Blair's selection for the Liberty Medal was announced by the Constitution Center's president, David Eisner, and Mayor Nutter. Both deflected reporters' questions about Iraq, while praising Blair's record in Ireland and the Middle East and his creation of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, established in 2008 to promote understanding among adherents of the world's six leading religions: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.
"He's a true leader," Nutter said. "He has vision. He has ideas. He pursues them. And he's demonstrated once again that his public service is not contained to being in elective office. . . . You're not gonna find anyone who operates at this level . . . who hasn't been criticized. . . . I think when you look at the totality of who Tony Blair is and what Tony Blair has done, he is more than qualified to received the Liberty Medal, and we could not be more honored that he will get it and be in Philadelphia in September."
Nutter hopes to reprise a private meeting with Blair last year, when the former prime minister was visiting Philadelphia on other business. Someone on Blair's staff called Luke Butler, a Nutter aide who worked for Blair in 2005, suggesting a huddle with the mayor.
"He's a policy guy," Nutter said. "He wanted to know how [the economic crisis] was affecting the city and how I was dealing with that, both on the policy side and politically. And then he wanted to hear about the larger impact on America."
They met in Blair's suite at the Four Seasons, and at the Brit's request, the mayor smuggled in cheesesteaks for the former prime minister and his entourage.
"Between bites, he said it was really good," Nutter recalled. "He killed it. It was gone. Done. Nothing left."