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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.

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