What's really behind U.K. antagonism toward their country's close relationship with the U.S.?
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 [...]"
Yes, subsequent actions in Afghanistan have looked clumsy at best and disastrously negligent or poorly-conceived at worst. But it's not so clear that, had a prime minister "complained about the atrocious conduct of US troops in Afghanistan," as Oborne wishes Cameron would do, this would have made a material difference. Neither is it clear that, simply because there isn't any "evidence that Mr Cameron has complained," this means that there has been no internal dissent with NATO leadership.
On the Iraq War, those dissatisfied with Blair's performance are on somewhat more solid ground. The British public, like that in the U.S., supported the war in large part because the Bush administration claimed it had definitive proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which it turns out he didn't. Tony Blair admitted in 2009 that he would have supported the invasion even without WMD evidence, something that sparked even more outrage among Brits for his role in the war. So, if you're a British opponent of the Iraq war, you've got both your own leader and America's to blame. But Bush is gone, and Obama didn't support the war, so why treat the Cameron-Obama relationship as just another iteration of Blair-Bush?
The bizarre thing is that Brits genuinely seem to believe that the problem here was British seduction by American power. Glamor, too, but largely power. And that's a fascinating statement to try to unpack. Because Brits are no strangers, in terms of their national history, to power. In the history of hegemony, before the U.S., there was the British Empire. The U.S. might have a fancier airplane for its leader right now, but the U.K. is hardly some backwater with a serious danger of the delegates it sends to the States wandering around D.C. staring at all the big lights.
More likely, it's exactly this imperial history that has led to British hyper-awareness of America's own quasi-imperial screw-ups, as well as British sensitivity about letting power have its way. The U.K. doesn't just have psychological baggage about its own decline and passing the torch of Western hegemony to a former colony: the country carries the memory of its own botched and bloody wars, including on in Afghanistan in the 19th century. The story of British actions in India, in the Middle East, in South Africa could well render a nation sensitive about a later leader's "pragmatic decision to live with [...] American barbarism," in Oborne's words. And yes: there have been shocking abuses in Afghanistan, ones that Brits and Americans alike have a duty to condemn.
There is a lot in the world right now that is not as it should be. British prime ministers have a duty to do something about it, as do American presidents. Glamor and power are always things to be aware of, as are their tendencies to corrupt. But the suggestion that British prime ministers need to protect themselves from American glamor by staying in their own country seems a little much. Though it's perfectly fair for Brits to worry about Cameron's visit being a distraction from more pressing budget concerns, saying he's "carousing" and "being feted in foreign capitals and seduced by the maidens of military intervention" makes him sound like a rube visiting the land of temptation. This is Washington, not Vegas--and in the decisions leading up to the Iraq war, I think it's fair to say Air Force One was not the biggest problem.