US-UK 'special relationship' bruised after Syria rebuff


By Mohammed Abbas, NBC News contributor

LONDON — The British Parliament's decision to block participation in potential U.S.-led military strikes against Syria shocked many observers and raised questions over the health of the so-called "special relationship" between the two countries.

"Now we've smashed the relationship with the United States, we will not join in an international coalition led by a Democrat president, I think one has to ask, what are the consequences? The special relationship is obviously seriously damaged," a senior British Liberal Democrat politician, Paddy Ashdown, told Britain's Telegraph newspaper.

"I have never felt more depressed or, I'm bound to say, ashamed," he added, referring to Britain's refusal to join the U.S. in punishing forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly carrying out chemical attacks against civilians earlier this month.

Britain has been the U.S.'s staunchest ally in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while British contributions in hardware and manpower pale in significance to U.S. military might, London's backing has provided crucial diplomatic cover and moral support. Britain also works closely with the U.S. on intelligence and surveillance.

Rejecting participation in U.S.-led military adventures comes at a cost. The French — who unlike Britain continue to back action against Syria — found themselves famously vilified by some in the U.S. media as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and worse for their refusal to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

However, experts believe ties between London and Washington are unlikely to have been similarly damaged by British lawmakers' decision Thursday.

"As for the 'special relationship,' good friends tell each other when they are going wrong; the relationship survived Vietnam," John Baron, a British lawmaker and member of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, referring to Britain's lack of participation in the Vietnam War.

Unlike before the Iraq war, the level of doubt among the U.S. public and within Congress over the wisdom of strikes against Assad mean Britain's stance is less likely to be seen as a fundamental rupture with the U.S. over foreign policy.

Calls have mounted for President Barack Obama to seek congressional approval before any strike on Syria. A new NBC News opinion poll points shows Americans are divided over intervention in yet another Middle Eastern conflict and suggests strong support for going through Congress.

"I think both the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament, and the British and American people, are all on the same sheet of music," said Luke Coffey, a former U.S. soldier and a former adviser to Britain's Defense Ministry, who now works at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

"Not sure how the U.K. not participating in a war that most American military, Congress and public don't want will harm the special relationship," he added.

Nonetheless, the lack of British support for proposed punitive U.S.-led strikes against Assad is politically embarrassing for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who failed to persuade many among his own party to back the move, a rejection even usually supportive newspapers described as a humiliating blow to his authority.

Britain's absence from U.S. plans for Syria is also inconvenient for Obama and could give further ammunition to those in the U.S. who accuse Europe of shirking its military responsibilities and relying too heavily on U.S. protection.

"It will confirm to the Obama administration in its view that perhaps Britain isn't quite such a particular friend that it was, but I think the trend is moving in that direction anyway," said Eric Grove of the Center for International Security and War Studies at Britain's Salford University.

"I think it will create political problems. I think Congress might feel a bit more empowered. I know there are people who are very anxious about it, but personally I don't think it should be overstated," he added.

Malcolm Chalmers of London's Royal United Services Institute defense think tank said there were now "questions" over Britain's reliability as an ally to the U.S. but that ties were likely to remain strong.

"I think the U.S. needs allies for its legitimacy worldwide and also because in relative terms it is getting a bit less dominant than it was. The U.K. is still its most militarily capable ally. ... The U.S. is not going to walk away from that special relationship. I think that's the bottom line."

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