Sunday, March 25, 2012

Britain's Sepoy Relationship with US

by Ian Williams
Saturday, March 24th, 2012
The David Cameron-Barack Obama show last week was puzzling. The President got no brownie points from conservative leaning voters because hardly anyone in the United States, and certainly not the isolationist right, knows who Cameron is. Outside the specialist foreign policy community, which is aware of the eccentric and unrequited British affectation of a “special relationship”, no American office bearers would ever refer to it – except, perhaps, when stuck for words for ritual greetings to visiting British politicians. The real special relationship for American legislators is with Israel, which results in reflexive and pretty much unconditional support for whatever the government of Israel wants.
In contrast, since 1945, the British special relationship with the US has consisted of Britain doing what the US wanted. While Israel gets billions of dollars a year in kind and cash, it was only a few years ago that Britain paid off the last tranches of the money it borrowed to fight the Second World War – to buy weapons from the US. And, with the noted exception of Harold Wilson’s under-appreciated success in keeping British forces out of Vietnam, the reliable British role has been to provide modern-day sepoys to give “internationalist” cover to Washington’s adventures. So we could almost applaud Cameron in calling for restraint on Iran. Tony Blair would probably have been accusing Obama of going wobbly by not joining Benjamin Netanyahu in smiting the Persians.
Presumably, Obama overcame his previous indifference to Britain precisely because he knew what Cameron would say and wanted support from a more reliable public ally to set against the tetchy paranoia of the guest who came just before – Netanyahu. Indeed, in terms of sending messages, the bonhomie and picnic element that Obama put into his get-togethers with Cameron contrasted starkly with the cryogenic chill of his forced encounters with the Israeli leader. By trying to head off the drumbeats for war with more sanctions on Iran, Obama has helped to engineer a rise in petrol prices. When your two worst enemies urge a particular course of action upon you, it is probably wiser to go in the opposite direction.
Obama offered more sanctions to head off demands for military support for Netanyahu’s adventurism. Republicans, predictably, are blaming increasing pump prices on the President while Netanyahu, despite his professed atheism, probably prays daily for Obama’s defeat in November. So Cameron’s visit (and gratitude for the table tennis table, no doubt) was expediently welcome. However, Britain has neither an electorally powerful lobby, nor much in the way of public sentiment for any reflexive sympathy. In fact, there would probably be more active antipathy if it were not for the customary American historical amnesia, which means that most people have forgotten who burned down the White House and against whom the War of Independence was fought. (But then startlingly large proportions have forgotten who was an ally and who was an enemy in the Second World War.)
In realpolitik, a British government has to pay for anything it wants from the US, but in the fuzzy self-delusion of the “special relationship”, Prime Ministers tend to pre-emptively give Washington what it wants, fondly imagining reciprocation. On this occasion, in return for his support for Obama’s position on Iran, Cameron has seemingly achieved a promise to consider, at least, amending the one-sided servile extradition treaty that currently sends British residents to politically influenced US courts and savage and inhumane prison sentences. Big deal. If Britain is to sell its international reputation, it should demand a higher price.
The Russians and Germans are no longer a threat. The US no longer wants an unsinkable aircraft carrier off the shores of a continent in which it has lost interest. On the British side, the American idols after whom New Labour and Tories alike whored have given us the most overpopulated prisons and the worst social services and wealth inequality in Europe, along with the most intense legislative hostility to workers’ rights and trade unions. It also makes us globally the sidekick of a bullying superpower whose strength is failing.  It is long past time to wake up from the dream of a special relationship.

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