You Brits have not been cheated by the US

Tony Blair arrives here in Washington next week, an occasion which is sure to spark an outpouring of emotion. The British press will be awash with poodle cartoons. The American Congress will ring with his praises. And practically no one will ask how on earth it is possible that the British and the Americans have lately conceived such different views of the hoary old “special relationship”, and come up with such different valuations of its worth.
In my view, most of the explanation lies in our rather different understandings of recent history. Many high-ranking members of the US Administration would be enormously surprised, for example, to learn that the Prime Minister has been so loudly criticised in his own country for failing to extract more favours from George Bush.
As far as we are concerned, Blair received everything he asked for, in return for his support on Iraq. After all, what he really, really wanted, as practically no one in Britain seems to remember now, was for the US to stick with the convoluted United Nations weapons inspection process, and for America to request a second UN resolution, in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion.
Even if you don’t remember this episode in Britain, we recall quite vividly the humiliating spectacle of American diplomats grovelling before Cameroon’s UN delegation, and the sight of Colin Powell, our dignified Secretary of State, begging and pleading and nevertheless failing to get the Mexicans, our next door neighbours, to sign on – and all in order to pass a resolution that we thought, quite frankly, completely pointless. But the Prime Minister’s lawyers told him he needed it, and, despite the embarrassment, we dutifully tried.
It is certainly true, of course, that neither this extremely costly diplomatic victory, nor Blair’s other successful demand that the President involve himself more in the Middle East has resonated much with the average Briton. But that is hardly our fault.
Had Tony Blair wanted something a bit more popular – lots of contracts for British companies, say, or maybe an American subsidy that reduced the price of lager in British pubs – he would probably have got it, particularly in the weeks preceding the Iraq war, when we were sending off fat cheques to places like Slovakia, just because they said that they were on our side. But he didn’t – and we can hardly be blamed if the Prime Minister is more interested in multilateral institutions and world peace than he is in procuring cheap beer for his constituents, or, for that matter, in repatriating British terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the UK.
After all, in an interview that appeared in this newspaper last February, Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, said Britain could have its prisoners, if it wanted to prosecute them: “I have no desire to fill up our jails and spend time and money holding people.” It seems that Mr Blair wasn’t all that sure that British courts would be able to prosecute them so he let the matter rest, at least until now.
There are, it must be said, quite a few other historical matters that resonate differently too. It has been pointed out more than once that Americans aren’t quite as bothered by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the British appear to be. This is mostly because fewer Americans actually cared about them to begin with: one recent poll shows that about half of Americans believe that the Bush Administration was “intentionally misleading” about Iraqi weapons, but more than two-thirds still support the war anyway.
No one ever denied that there were also other reasons for the war – humanitarian and strategic, and (yes) oil, Israel, revenge for the Twin Towers, and democracy in the Middle East – and so no one feels particularly cheated. For this reason, we don’t feel, or at least not yet, that the British-American partnership in Iraq was a terrible political disaster.
In Britain, by contrast, the presence or absence of Saddam’s biological weapons became the central issue because Tony Blair put them in the centre. And they were important to him because they were important to the UN: the entire UN weapons inspection process, about which the Prime Minister was so passionate, revolved around the question of whether they existed.
There is more, of course. Over here, we thought that Blair’s parliamentary defence of the war, against the wishes of his party, was extremely brave: it defied our expectation of what politicians are meant to do. Over there, it seems you now think that Blair’s parliamentary defence of the war was mendacious: it fulfilled all of your worst fears about what politicians can do.
Over here, we thought British and American soldiers fought gallantly, side by side. Over there, you thought the British troops spent most of their time correcting American mistakes. Over here, when Bush and Blair stand together, we all gasp in awe at the Prime Minister’s eloquence. Over there, you all cringe in horror at his subservience.
Worse, the vast gulf in perception continues. Last Friday, the President told his CIA chief to fall on his sword and apologise for allowing some allegedly dodgy British intelligence about Iraq to appear in a presidential speech. In The Washington Post the headline read, “White House blames CIA for error”. The accompanying story did mention the fact that Britain stands by its intelligence – but in a glancing reference in paragraph 12. Over there, it seems you understood this episode differently – more like “White House blames Britain for error” – and your Foreign Secretary is seething with anger about it.
Which is a pity, since Blair and Bush, that historical odd couple, now have so much in common. If Blair is facing a crisis over WMD, Bush is in trouble because he implicitly promised Americans that their troops would be home from Iraq within weeks. Now it looks as if the occupation will last for years – at a cost of $4 billion a month. Both men’s approval ratings are falling dramatically. One would think that this alone would give our two leaders a few mutually understandable topics of conversation.

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