There’s been an hysterical outpouring of angst over the “death of the special relationship”, following that Commons vote and the ill-advised comments of William Hague about a need for national soul-searching. The Sun has devoted its front page to an extended metaphor — or maybe satire — about a funeral for the Special Relationship, taking place at the French Embassy. A bit over-the-top.
And can we please at least drop the term “special relationship”? It’s getting very jaded and a bit cringe-making. It’s the Transatlantic Relationship. Let’s call it that. And it’s long-standing, resilient and multifaceted, driven not by sound-bites, and not solely be shared military adventures, but by history, culture, language, trade, scientific and educational links, shared values, military cooperation and intelligence ties.
Britain and America were actually at war in 1812/1814, in what was partly an American attempt to annex Canada. I’ve seen the pock-marks left by British bullets on the White House masonry.
Cut to the Korean War, 1950/53, when American and British troops fought side by side, under UN auspices, and quite literally saved South Korea for democracy. South Korea is now thriving, in stark contrast to its Kafka-esque northern neighbour. I’ve spent many years in Korea, and even stood on Gloster Hill above the ImjinRiver with veterans of the Gloucestershire Regiment, hearing their blow-by-blow account of their heroic defence against overwhelming Chinese forces.
Few would argue that we were wrong to engage in that war.
(In passing, the North Korean situation is an interesting contrast to Syria. North Korea has allowed millions of its citizens to starve to death — and most are hungry. It has an estimated 200,000 citizens in the gulags under brutal and appalling conditions. And it’s reported that their boy-leader Kim Jong Un, to please his wife, has just ordered the machine-gunning of his former lover and a dozen of his wife’s former singing partners. If we have a moral duty to bomb Assad, what about our moral duty in North Korea?)
Then Suez, in 1956. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden felt betrayed when the USA cut him off at the knees. It pains me to say so, but the Americans were probably right to caution against the Suez invasion, and to stand back from it.
Then there was Vietnam. The UK chose not to go into Vietnam alongside the Americans, and history clearly vindicated that decision. I suspect that most Americans, with hindsight, wish they hadn’t gone either.
Then we come to modern times. Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya. And now Syria. I suspect that there are rather few people who would state unequivocally that Iraq today is better off as a result of the war. With hindsight, Tony Blair has rightly taken a lot of criticism, both for over-hyping the evidence of WMD, and for his uncritically subservient attitude to George W Bush. As Cameron has done more recently, Blair made commitments to the US President which he ought not to have made before going through the motions in London. The difference was this: that Blair nonetheless managed to deliver on the promises he had made in the White House. Cameron, to his acute embarrassment, could not.
At least one news report suggested that Cameron had “apologised to Obama for the decision of parliament”. I very much hope he did not — it would have been a constitutional outrage. But he should indeed apologise to Obama for promising more than he was able to deliver.
Then Afghanistan, where surely our well-intentioned intervention is now looking like a failed and forlorn exercise in do-goodery. This was Britain’s fourth military adventure in Afghanistan, and none has had a good outcome. 1839/42. 1878. 1919. And then Russia’s dreadful experience. Will we never learn?
Followed by Libya. Did we make things better or worse? The jury is still out. But British troops are not yet out of Afghanistan, after twelve long years.
Clearly the British people and the British parliament have decided that we’ve had enough foreign adventures for the moment, and that there are good reasons not to bomb Syria. They are entitled to make that decision, and I agree with it. We remain firm allies of the US, but that doesn’t mean we always jump to the White House dog-whistle, any more than the Americans always support us without question.
The irony is that Obama himself may have exactly the same problem as Cameron. Obama has been agonising and prevaricating over Syria. He feels obliged to do something, following his rash “red line” warning. But he knows that foreign military adventures are increasingly unpopular with his own constituency, and reportedly with his military. 80% of Americans think the President should seek Congressional approval for any action in Syria. We’ll see if he can get it.