The British Are Still (Too) Angry at America for Pulling Them Into Iraq

What's really behind U.K. antagonism toward their country's close relationship with the U.S.?

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British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at the White House / Reuters

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Washington for a summit with President Barack Obama has gotten a lot of criticism from the British press. Why? It's not like the U.S. is Syria or something, and the two leaders have tended to get together pretty regularly throughout the years. 

But it seems Cameron has provoked a nasty bout of Britain's Blair-Regret Syndrome. 

"Such a cocaine rush of power could lead Britain to become the 51st state."

The memory of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the blame that many British still place on him for following George W. Bush into the Iraq war, lie just beneath the surface of the criticism of Cameron for even setting foot on Air Force One. "Washington hospitality is dangerously intoxicating to British prime ministers," The Guardian's Simon Jenkins began in his piece on the visit. The conservative-leaning Telegraph opened its criticism of the trip by having their political commentator, Peter Oborne, describe flying on Air Force One back in 1994. 

Air Force One is like an enormous and hugely expensive penthouse flat, with bedrooms, bathrooms, offices and expensively appointed drawing rooms, the prevailing colour of which is beige. There are no rows of seats of the sort one expects in an aeroplane. But by every armchair there was a telephone, so we could ring up whom we wished, anywhere in the world. At the end of the flight, we were given a pack of Air Force One playing cards as a souvenir. 

What's the point of this reminiscing? "It's easy to see why British prime ministers should find this seductive," continues Oborne. Note the plural in "prime ministers." Cameron is likely to find Air Force One seductive because Tony Blair did--and if Tony Blair hadn't been so wowed by Air Force One, maybe he wouldn't have taken his country into the Iraq war. 

As absurd as this may sound, this is exactly the assumption both of these prominent op-eds--one from a Labour-leaning paper, one leaning Conservative--seem to rest on, when you break it down. Jenkins follows up his first sentence about Washington's "intoxicating" hospitality by pointing out, "Tony Blair never recovered from his first 'Washington high' in 1998. Swivel-eyed after a White House banquet, he came home putting out feelers for a more palatial London residence and a 'Blair Force One' jet. American presidents could do no wrong after that. Now David Cameron is doing even better, with an invitation to fly in Air Force One itself. Such a cocaine rush of power could lead Britain to become the 51st state." 

Could it? Could it really? An over-eager Prime Minister well help the Americans annex their former colonial master? This "51st state" exaggeration may be popular shorthand, but the subjugation it implies appears to be a real fear, and you can see it in Oborne's op-ed as well. After describing the "pictures at the basketball game, the meeting between two very charismatic first ladies," and offering a token disclaimer that there would be "opportunity for a serious private conversation," Oborne argues that the visit "is also troubling, and it raises questions. In recent years Britain's allegiance to the United States has led us into two conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been our worst military setbacks since Suez. These humiliations might have been worthwhile if the cause was good. But the post-9/11 wars have been fought in a way that has done hideous damage to Britain's reputation as a country that claims to value freedom and the rule of law." 

Jenkins and Oborne have a legitimate beef with their prime ministers over seeming too quick to agree with American presidents. They've got a legitimate beef about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan having been bungled. But this is just silly. 

To start with, it's possible to be against most or all of what's gone on in Afghanistan and to still acknowledge that entering the conflict may have seemed right at the time to Blair. The year 2001 may feel like a long way off right now, so perhaps it's hard to remember how, for a while, taking out the Taliban did appear to be plausibly in the best interests of multiple countries, not just the U.S. The Afghan was sheltering a man who had just organized the worst terrorist attack in history, one that had stunned the entire world, and had no intention of giving him up. Neither did it have any intention of dealing with the multiple Al-Qaeda bases within Afghanistan. Finally, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty that established NATO already laid out the path for the British to take: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all [...]"

Presented by

Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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