Thursday, 30 November 2006

How Britain can be a true friend of the United States

Lurking under a headline worthy of The Times’s new tabloid format is a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s failure to manage Britain’s relationship with America. According to Dr. Kendall Mayers, a UK specialist at the State Department, Blair’s relationship with George Bush has been “a one sided relationship that was entered into with open eyes… there was nothing. There was no payback, no sense of reciprocity”.

Herein lies the root of much of the failure of Western policy in the Middle East. I have been and remain a staunch defender of the Atlantic Alliance and Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. I am unashamed to call myself an friend of America. Yet the current Administration has treated the British Government with utter contempt. While I do not doubt the sincerity of Labour ministers when they say that they have always made strong representations to the American Government in private, it is clear that these have been brushed aside in a naïve display of hubris.

The catalogue of missed opportunities is long. Between 9/11 and the Iraq War, Britain pressed the US to take a holistic approach to the Middle East; no settlement could be achieved if the Israel/Palestine tragedy was not resolved. Yet the Bush administration has steered clear of this knottiest of problems, leaving it as a festering wound enraging Muslim opinion.

Only a few days ago Jeremy Greenstock, formerly Britain’s chief diplomat in Iraq, reiterated the claim that Britain urged the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority not to disband the Iraqi army. The Americans ignored this advice, sacked three hundred thousand of troops and started aggressively de-Baathifying the country. The newly jobless and disaffected quickly mounted an insurgency that only later took on an Islamist dimension.

The UK has repeatedly urged the US to close the Al Queda recruiting office at Guantanamo Bay. And the US ignored Britain’s suggestion that they engage with Iran in 2004; two years later we will go to Tehran cap-in-hand.

This is a tragedy. When asked on his death-bed what his greatest mistake was, President Eisenhower famously stated that he should have supported Britain over the Suez War. Despite the illegality of this conflict, the Anglo-French debacle gave a fillip to Arab nationalism that led directly to the Baathist takeover in Iraq and so to this second, equally ill-starred conflict. I do not tell this story to justify either that war on this one. Rather, I wonder whether President Bush will also one day come to rue ignoring British advice and treating his closest ally as a client state.

Having said all this, I do not share Dr. Mayers pessimism that the “special relationship” is doomed. However, a re-evaluation is due. Both Britain and America must learn that friends and allies serve one another best when being honest and tough with one another. There are many truths that friends do not wish to hear, but a real friend does not sit quietly by and bury his fears because he does not want to upset his friend with an uncomfortable truth. Rather, he tells it how he sees it, sticks to his guns (or ploughshares) and challenges his friend to prove his fears ungrounded. This is not what the Blair government has done, nor what the Bush administration has encouraged. But this is what the future must entail.

Britain must be a true friend to the United States. To be this, we must be a friend that says the truth.

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