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Britain rethinks its role

Britain has long sought to play the role of translator in the trans-Atlantic relationship, helping European Union powers understand America's actions. Blair played the role faithfully, but his subsequent battering may make future British leaders less eager. Part IV of a series. By Michael Moran.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has paid a high price for Anglo-U.S. relations.Pool / Reuters file

As European and American officials attempt to assess the damage done to trans-Atlantic relations by the Iraq war, comparatively little energy is spent examining ties between the U.S. and Britain.

In recent decades, as Britain’s own influence has waned in the world, British leaders have sought to carve out a role as the interpreter of American actions to the rest of the European Union. Blair himself has described Britain’s role as that of a “bridge across the Atlantic."

With American and British troops joining to oust Iraq’s dictator and with their leaders and intelligence agencies sounding alarms about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs, it might seem that Washington and London remain on the best of terms. Even among those who make a living parsing through the dusty journals of trans-Atlantic affairs, there has been a tendency to focus strictly on the public split that erupted between Washington and its erstwhile allies on the continent, France and Germany.

But to assume U.S.-British relations survived the war unscathed would be denying reality. Indeed, as the months have passed since Baghdad’s fall, it has become clear to officials in both nations that the political costs of waging war against Iraq without first securing the international legitimacy of the United Nations are falling most heavily on British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

American troops continue paying a far higher price in blood than their British comrades, but it is Blair’s standing that is compromised. In spite of a reprieve with Wednesday's release of the Hutton report in Britain, which focused on the Blair government’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s purported WMD programs, Blair’s star has plummeted. Blair's position has so deteriorated that it is now conceivable that Iraq will prove the undoing of a British leader who, before the war, had won the largest parliamentary majorities in over 200 years.

More than politics
If Blair’s troubles were the sole negative result of the Anglo-American alliance on Iraq, many in the Bush administration would happily pay the price. Blair, after all, leads a left-center Labour Party government, hardly a natural kin to the neo-conservative Bush administration.

“I think it would be fair to say we were surprised by the strength of his support,” says a senior Bush administration official. “We saw it was politically risky for him, but he never wavered. That said, I heard more than one person say ‘I wish Maggie [Thatcher] was still around’.”

But the implications for Anglo-American relations go far beyond British politics. The important "bridge across the Atlantic" may be damaged, and Blair's fight for his political life is distracting attention from the deeper problem.

“Blair really stuck his neck out for the Anglo-U.S. relations, and look where it’s got him,” says Stephen Blackwell, who runs the European Security Program at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. “This makes me very skeptical that a future prime minister would go to the same length. It doesn’t turn Britain into France, but I think the disadvantages in playing the role of ‘bridge between Washington and Europe’ were very starkly exposed last year.”

An odd couple
For all its carefully tended imagery, the united front presented by Blair and Bush had more than a few cracks. There were genuine moments - Blair's rousing call to arms on Sept. 14, 2001, Bush's decision to bestow upon Blair a rare invitation to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

There was, too, a certain harmony in British and American intelligence reports making what now appear to be increasingly tenuous assertions about Saddam’s WMD programs.

Still, behind the scenes, many British officials were warning that equally strong evidence to the contrary was being ignored. One such official, a government advisor named David Kelly, wound up quoted anonymously in a BBC report that alleged Blair was “sexing up” the case for war. Kelly’s identity was revealed by a government source and he committed suicide, leading to an investigation that has battered Blair for months.

There were other divisions, too. Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who is now Britain’s senior official in Iraq, spearheaded efforts last winter to win United Nations approval for the U.S.-British plan for war. While U.S. State Department officials appear to have worked genuinely with their British counterparts, Vice President Dick Cheney was “waging a guerrilla war against the process,” an aide to Blair says in a new biography of Blair by Philip Stephens, a respected Financial Times journalist.

“The British knew we didn’t have a consensus even within the White House on how to proceed,” a State Department official says, requesting anonymity. “In the end, the president made it clear in his U.N. address that we wanted authorization. But all in all, it wasn’t the full court press we should have mounted, and that was because some high ranking officials felt that just by going to the U.N. the U.S. was violating its own sovereignty.”

Different perspectives
The failure to win a U.N. blessing may mean little to the White House. In Britain, however, the lack of a U.N. imprimatur and the fact that not a single banned weapons program appears to have been underway in Iraq has left Blair flapping in the wind.

“For a lot of people, the American special relationship has been cheapened by the way this unfolded,” says Charles Dick, who heads the Conflict Studies Research Center at Sandhurst, Britain’s equivalent of West Point and hardly a den of anti-Americanism.

“The Blair government made some ham handed exaggerations about Saddam,” says Dick, who emphasized he was speaking for himself and not the British military. Dick says there was a degree of shock at the disdain America and ultimately, Britain, too, showed for international law.

“There’s a real sense here in Europe, maybe less strong here than on the continent, but still here nonetheless, that we need to respect international norms in order to avoid the kind of nightmarish conflicts that marred the 20th century,” says Dick.

Which side are you on?
Already, Blair has moved to quickly mend fences with Germany and France, helping defuse a recent dispute with Washington over a Franco-German plan to create a European defense planning body that is separate from NATO.

On the continent, many believe the net result of Blair’s experience may be to temper Britain’s pro-American instincts.

“The newspapers tell you that relations between (French President Jacques) Chirac and Blair are not good. But that masks the fact that on European defense initiatives, the Brits and French are working very closely together,” says RUSI’s Blackwell. “And in recent months, there’s a real trend toward a kind of ‘trilateral’ diplomacy on big issues in Europe, with Britain joining the French and Germans who caused so much alarm doing things on their own during the Iraq debate.”

There also is optimism in some circles in Britain, primarily on the left, about Blair’s recent decision to commit the British military fully to the new European Rapid Reaction Force, a unit that is supposed to be capable of deploying 60,000 troops with 60 days notice for extended interventions anywhere in the world. This, the British left hopes, may be the beginning of a true European alternative, if not quite the French dream of a counterbalance, to American might.

The third way
But much of the British establishment, and a considerable portion of the electorate, is skeptical that Europe can or should seek to build its own separate military power. The British public, like people around the European Union, tend to draw a sharp line between the current American government and the American people, whom they still profess to like quite a bit in opinion polls.

All of this may temper the doom and gloom surrounding the Anglo-American friendship these days. It may be possible, as the British historian Timothy Garton Ash noted last autumn, to play it both ways -- to be close to America, yet European as well.

Others see the choice more starkly.

“The fact is, Britain would not have much of a voice in Europe if it were not for its closeness to Washington,” says Jens van Scherpenberg of Berlin’s Institute for International and Security Affairs. “It makes perfect sense, but they may have to make a choice in the future.”

That is a choice that Blair would like to put off as far into the future as possible.

Coming Friday: France and its demons