No Comment — September 2, 2007, 9:47 am

The ‘Special Relationship’ on the Rocks

The cornerstone of British foreign policy for the last generation has been a much vaunted “special relationship” with the United States, in which British national security policy was closely connected to the policies pursued across the pond in Washington. This marked the decided counterweight to those in Britain who wished to see London draw closer to Europe. The compromise that was struck entailed United Kingdom membership in Europe, and economic policies geared to the establishment of London as Europe’s financial and professional services center, while bolstering the special relationship with America on security matters. Britons recognized that they would have relatively little influence with Washington, but many in elite circles saw in the “special relationship” Britain’s last chance to have some real say in global affairs.

This relationship may have seen its heyday in the special rapport that existed between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and Britain may even have achieved something of a leadership role in term of Bush 41. During the Clinton years, the relationship was congenial. The idea of the “special relationship” seemed well-established, built to last, no longer seriously challenged within British leadership elites.

But then Bush 43 arrived, and there is good reason to wonder if things will ever be the same again. Today it’s an item of faith among political leaders that nothing is a riper target of political potshots than the relationship with Washington. This stretches across all party lines: whereas once it was reserved for the Lib-Dems, a more peripheral political appearance, and the left wing of the Labour Party, today David Cameron and the Conservatives feel the popularity of this political sentiment and are playing up to it.


A number of pieces running in the weekend’s quality press in London point to this. A quick run-through is in order:

Moving Away from Bush Administration Iraq Policy
The Independent reports on President Bush’s appeal to Prime Minister Gordon Brown to “stay the course in Iraq.” Bush turned to SkyNews, a Rupert Murdoch-owned satellite news operation, to make his push—a step that drew real ire among the new British leadership. It sees Brown accelerating the process of British withdrawal from Iraq, and moving more quickly away from Bush’s Iraq policy as that policy flounders and loses popular and Congressional support at home:

The first signs of real divisions between George Bush and Gordon Brown over Iraq emerged as the President urged Britain to stay the course in the country. The American President said: “We need all our coalition partners. I understand that everybody’s got their own internal politics. My only point is that whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, we’ve got more work to do.”

In a Sky News interview, he made clear his irritation with Mr Brown’s approach on Iraq. He said Western troops should only think of pulling out once they had completed the “hard work” of defeating al-Qa’ida and Iranian-backed insurgents. Although Mr Brown has rejected demands to set an exit timetable for the 5,000 British troops in southern Iraq, ministers have said that the decision on their future will be taken independently of Washington. They insist a pull-out of British forces would depend on local conditions in Basra – whatever the plight of US troops in Baghdad.

The Prime Minister is expected to announce next month that Britain will hand over control of security to Iraqi troops and police across the whole of southern Iraq, with British troops switching to “overwatch” status.

Anger Over U.S. “Incompetence”
While the tone of discussions between Bush and Brown is rather more delicate, surrogates are engaged in fisticuffs. The most serious row erupted when Gen. Jack Keane, a retired Army general, and one of a tiny handful of retired generals who belongs to the Neocon movement, used his remarks on return from a trip to Iraq to attack the performance of the British military. Keane said the security situation in southern Iraq was “deteriorating” and there was “general disengagement” by the British military in Basra.

Former British chief of staff Gen. Sir Mike Jackson responded by telling the Daily Telegraph (often viewed as the informal paper of record of the Ministry of Defence) that “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”

What has happened in the south, as in the rest of Iraq, was that primary responsibility for security would be handed to the Iraqis once the Iraqi authorities and the coalition were satisfied their training and development was appropriate. In the south we had responsibility for four provinces. Three of these have been handed over in accordance with that strategy.

Jackson was also critical of the decision to hand control of planning the administration of Iraq to the Pentagon, and said disbanding the Iraqi army and security forces had been “very short-sighted.”

This morning political and defense establishment figures across the political spectrum in Britain are angrily speaking out in support of Gen. Jackson, and expressing resentment of Bush’s and Keane’s criticisms. Some of their comments about the Bush Administration’s conduct of the Iraq War are withering. Most are not critical about the decision to invade Iraq, but the label the actual execution of the post-invasion operations as “incompetent.”

Concern About the Next War
British intelligence figures are also anxiously monitoring the Bush Administration’s dealings with Iran. Britain has worked hard to bolster the U.S. stance against Iranian nuclear programs, but concern about Bush’s intentions are growing. There is a strong sense that the U.S. has settled on a wide-ranging aerial attack on Iran, which will be pursued before the end of Bush’s term—regardless of the steps the Iranians take in the nuclear limitations talks. This scenario provides the Iranians no incentive to agree to nuclear limitations. One British diplomat described the conduct of the Americans in the recent hostage crisis as “singularly unhelpful,” “provocative,” and “bullying.” “It was clear to us from the outset that Vice President Cheney and a few of his advisers saw real value in this crisis—they considered it a perfect casus belli,” one said. This morning the Murdoch-owned Times (London) reports on the Pentagon’s plans for an aerial war against Iran:

The Pentagon has drawn up plans for massive airstrikes against 1,200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranians’ military capability in three days, according to a national security expert. Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center, said last week that US military planners were not preparing for “pinprick strikes” against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They’re about taking out the entire Iranian military,” he said.

Debat was speaking at a meeting organised by The National Interest, a conservative foreign policy journal. He told The Sunday Times that the US military had concluded: “Whether you go for pinprick strikes or all-out military action, the reaction from the Iranians will be the same.” It was, he added, a “very legitimate strategic calculus”. President George Bush intensified the rhetoric against Iran last week, accusing Tehran of putting the Middle East “under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust”. He warned that the US and its allies would confront Iran “before it is too late”.

One Washington source said the “temperature was rising” inside the administration. Bush was “sending a message to a number of audiences”, he said to the Iranians and to members of the United Nations security council who are trying to weaken a tough third resolution on sanctions against Iran for flouting a UN ban on uranium enrichment.

As I noted in a radio interview earlier this week, I have learned that the decision to label the Revolutionary Guard is a critical part of the legal basis for the war plan. White House analysts believe that by scheduling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, they can then launch air and ground strikes against it using the authority granted in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

The evidence of advanced preparations for an aerial strike against Iran is now all around us. British leaders are making clear that they will have nothing to do with it. Indeed, one British diplomat tells me that Brown is considering an acceleration of British draw-downs from Iraq precisely because of the looming prospect of a war. “If it happens, there will be Iranian counterattacks on allied forces in Iraq. We are anxious for the security of our forces, who have not been outfitted and prepared to withstand this sort of conventional military engagement.”

We are watching the demolition of the “special relationship” in real time.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:


Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Driving Mr. Albert


He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today