Blair's burden

Print edition : May 01, 2002

BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair returned from his most recent trip to the United States with a formidable task facing him, namely, how to get his own reluctant party and country to accept what he seems to regard as desirable and inevitable, that is, a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

The Sunday newspaper The Observer claims that plans are well under way to commit as many as 25,000 British troops to an invasion planned for this autumn, yet 140 Members of Parliament, over 130 of them Labour, have signed a House of Commons motion warning the government of the "grave consequences" of an attack on Iraq. Moreover, the latest public opinion polls indicate that 51 per cent of the respondents do not want any military involvement by Britain in West Asia, in addition to its increased involvement in Afghanistan, which in itself now involves the largest contingent of overseas British troops since the conflict over Falklands in 1982.

Perhaps the most difficult task of all is to convince a sceptical British public that Iraq is a bigger threat to world peace than the escalating violence in Palestine. A demonstration for peace in Palestine attracted 40,000 people in Trafalgar Square on April 13. It is clear that the U.S., supported by Britain, cannot attack Iraq as long as the situation in Afghanistan remains as undecided as it is in reality.

At the beginning of the U.S.' Afghanistan campaign, the United Kingdom was told in no uncertain terms that a large contingent of British troops was not needed, despite Blair's eagerness to "stand shoulder to shoulder" with the U.S. Far from being thoroughly routed, as Blair had trumpeted in autumn, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban have proven stubbornly resistant. Defence Minister Geoff Hoon's announcement that 1,700 British marines would be committed to the battle in the mountains of Afghanistan represents quite a turnaround. When the Opposition Tory party forced a vote in Westminster (it supported the military commitment but complained about the lack of parliamentary accountability) neither Blair nor his Deputy, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, turned up for the debate. The implications of such blanket support for U.S.' foreign policy throw into stark relief once again the nature of Britain's "special relationship" with the U.S.

Britain's post-Second World War West Asia strategy, particularly after the Suez debacle when the U.S. effectively took over whatever remained of Britain's role in the region, has been to play a supportive role, allowing the U.S. to define the overall strategy. Britain's ignominious retreat from the Suez in 1956 truly marked the end of the Empire, and since then - and despite enormous British commercial interest in the region - no British government has attempted to exert any independent influence in West Asia.

Harold Macmillan, who himself came to power on the back of the Suez crisis, infamously and patronisingly stated that Britain's role in the new world order was to be "the Greeks in this new Roman Empire of the Americans", that is, to be the enlightened advisers to the brutal economic and military power of the U.S.

The 20th anniversary of the Falklands campaign has led to much analysis of the U.K.'s actual influence on U.S. policy. Even the most fervent apologists for the "special relationship" find it very hard to show that at any time Britain's uncritical support for the U.S. has ever led to any tangible benefit.

Blair has settled for a minimalist policy, long advocated by the U.S. State Department; that is, Britain's special relationship and value for the U.S. is to be its most loyal European ally. General Charles de Gaulle always opposed Britain's membership of the European Community, arguing that Britain would always be "America's Trojan Horse" in Europe.

The question of the "special relationship" is now a very pressing one, for post-September 11 it is clear that the U.S. will proceed entirely on the basis of "multilaterally when possible, unilaterally when necessary". Self-interest has replaced enlightened self-interest at the State Department. The Bush administration is ruthlessly pragmatic in its determination that "the operation will determine the coalition". And this throws into doubt the very existence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which the U.S. had carefully cultivated since the end of the Second World War and kept alive long after its raison d'etre, the Cold War, had ended.

Immediately after September 11, Lord Robertson, NATO Secretary-General and former British Defence Minister, rushed to offer NATO's full support to the U.S., but the offer was met by a deafening silence. The U.S. did not want anyone else influencing its war on terrorism.

Europe's dilemma is acute. Far more dependent on West Asian oil than the U.S. is, European leaders have carefully cultivated a three-pronged strategy for the region - a massive programme of aid for the Arab Mediterranean called MEDA, developing a free trade agreement with the Gulf states, and funding a huge programme for civil and economic regeneration in the putative Palestinian state.

The U.S.' unilateralism in trade has brought it into dispute with Europe on steel tariffs. Now U.S. unilateralism in foreign policy has seriously jeopardised Europe's carefully laid plans for peace and economic cooperation with the West Asian nations.

Blair temporarily rode high in Europe for the simplest of reasons, that he seemed to be the only person in Europe whom Bush would listen to. However, subsequent months have shown that as with so many things about Blair, appearance was all. So Bush will not listen to Europe through NATO, and he will not do so through Blair either. And Europe is not listening to Blair as he has put himself out on a limb by his unquestioned support for U.S. policy. Little wonder that a recent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio analysis of the current crisis described Britain as "Piggy in the Middle".

If an autumn offensive against Iraq is planned, as informed speculation indicates, Blair is going to have to work very hard to keep his own party, his own country and his own European allies on board and all for the price of the "special relationship".

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor