It is notable that, despite the disquiet throughout the country about the way we went to war in Iraq, and the unease about the deployment in Afghanistan, there is no difference between the two major parties on either issue. The Liberal Democrats had the courage to oppose the Iraq invasion, but they have largely fallen into line over the aftermath, and their recent criticism over Afghanistan is tactical. Similarly, there is mounting public concern about the suffering of the Palestinian people and the failure of the international powers to hold Israel to account for its constant breaches of international law, but these very serious concerns are hardly debated in the mainstream of British politics.
The problem, I believe, is the obsession of all the post war governments with the “special relationship”. The best and most readable account of this is Peter Riddell’s Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the ‘Special Relationship’ . The explanation of this obsession, takes us back to the old jibe from Dean Acheson who was Secretary of State in the Truman government from 1949-1953 that Britain has “lost an Empire and not yet found a role”. Britain’s problem, or at least the problem of the British political elite, is that they are desperate to be seen as a great power. It is notable and laughable how frequently British politicians claim to be leading the world. A recent example is how spokespeople for all parties claim that we are “leading the world” on climate change, as our domestic performance lags well behind many other European countries.
Clearly the UK is not a great power and cannot lead except by joining together with other like minded middle ranking countries to work for more intelligent and farsighted policies.
In trying to understand Blair’s relationship with President Bush, it is important to put it in the wider context of the post war British government’s obsession with their relationship with the US. Churchill who was half American and wrote admiringly of the English speak peoples. He was, of course, absolutely right to focus on the possibility of the US joining the war. If this had not happened, Britain might easily have been defeated and occupied by the Nazi regime, and the history of Europe would have been very different. But for those of us who have grown up fully accepting that Britain is a middle ranking power, it is important to remind ourselves that Britain went into the war as a major power and did not fully appreciate how weakened it had become. It took the humiliation of Suez in 1956, when the UK had to withdraw from its disgraceful conspiracy with France and Israel to re-occupy the Suez Canal zone after Nasser’s nationalisation. The US unwillingness to support sterling demonstrated how weak the UK had become and it has been hanging on to the American coat tails ever since.
The great exception to this rule was Edward Heath, whose obsession was joining the UK with the rest of Europe rather than with the US. And in this he succeeded. The referendum held under the Wilson government in 1975 settled our membership. But then came Mrs Thatcher who, in the latter part of her premiership, became anti- European Union and whose legacy lives on in a divided Conservative party and the breakaway to the UKIP fringe. I am not sure whether those who support UKIP are in favour of our role as America’s poodle. They appear to carry a kind of post imperial illusion that Britain can stand alone. But there is so little discussion of major foreign policy options in mainstream politics that their position remains unclear.
But, despite this background and Mrs Thatcher’s deep affection for Ronald Reagan, she did not support his invasion of Grenada in 1983 and publicly made her position clear. Similarly, Harold Wilson was deeply attached to the “special relationship” but resisted all the pressure exerted on him to involve the UK in the Vietnam War.
Thus Tony Blair’s attachment to the special relationship was predictable. But his willingness to follow an extremist President in a reckless and dishonest invasion of Iraq, and to deceive his Cabinet, Parliament and country, to get us there is one of the most abject versions of the relationship that we have seen. It is of course a tragedy that Blair gave his word from very early on that he would be with Bush on the invasion of Iraq. There is, in my view, a real possibility that if British support had been made conditional on the support of the UN Security Council, Blix would have been allowed to report that, to his own surprise, there were no WMD. Sanctions could then have been lifted and Saddam Hussein indicted as a war criminal. The people of Iraq would then have been given the chance, just as did the Serbs with Milosevic, to send him for trial in The Hague.
It is worth remembering that the people of the US were lied to in a different way from those of the UK. They were led to believe that the attack on the Twin Towers was organised out of Iraq. It is not surprising therefore that they were willing to support the war, but nonetheless 80 per cent said in coalition yes, alone no. Britain’s role was to be that coalition and the tragedy is that Tony Blair did not use that leverage to help shape a better policy.
My own explanation of Blair’s behaviour is that he was desperate to form a good relationship with Bush after the closeness of his relationship with Clinton and therefore desperately anxious to please. In addition, second term Blair was looking for a bigger legacy than his finely honed skills with focus groups and sound bites. After the attack on the Twin Towers, he wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and was willing to be less than honest, to manipulate the government system and throw all his authority on the line to do so.
There are many books that tell the story of the UK role in the Iraq invasion. There is increasing public discussion of the need for a major reconsideration of the strategy in Afghanistan. And since the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the attack on Gaza in 2009, there is growing unease about the endless suffering of the Palestinians and the failure of the international community to hold Israel to respect for international law.
There is also growing pessimism over Obama’s prospects of securing peace in the Middle East. He is no doubt sincere, but working out of a political system that is completely unbalanced in its unconditional support for Israel. A more independent UK could work with others to open more space and make it more likely that Obama would succeed.
The detail of all these questions is deeply important. But underlying all foreign policy questions is the need for a full debate on Britain’s obsession with its relationship with the US. For me it is like a small boy who thinks he is important because he is best friends with the biggest boy in the playground. We humiliate ourselves, fail to use our influence beneficially and fail to act as an honest friend to either the US or Israel, thus stoking up continuing suffering, bloodshed and division at a time when we need unprecedented international co-operation to deal with the mounting crisis of global warming and other environmental strains.
 Riddell, P. 2004.Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the ‘Special Relationship’. 2nd. Ed. London: Politico’s Publishing Ltd.