President George Bush’s forthcoming state visit to Britain is being derided as an ill-advised trip at an even more ill-advised time. An American president, vilified by much of the British media, will meet a supposedly weak British prime minister. Tens of thousands of protesters plan to throng the streets. In a supposedly satirical rerun of events in Baghdad on April 9, a statue of George Bush will be hauled down in the center of London. Americans may find some of the vituperation heaped upon their president surprising and shocking; David Frum believes that for Bush the trip could turn into “one of the worst media debacles of his presidency.” Britain, it might appear, is not quite the close ally many Americans would like to think that she is.
Yet the oddity of Britain is that while the press and public opinion have been volatile in their attitude towards the Iraq war, British political leaders, in government and opposition, are remarkably united in supporting the U.S. administration. Public opinion, to an extent influenced by the media, has moved from supporting war against Saddam Hussein in August 2002, to opposing it in February 2003, to backing it again in March 2003, and now to a sullen skepticism about the whole venture.
By contrast, there is among the politicians a clear understanding that Britain has a long-term commitment to Iraq. There is no notion that British troops will leave in the near future. Indeed, Blair’s official spokesman said on November 13 that “our exit strategy was exactly the same today as it had been on day one–a free and prosperous Iraq for the Iraqi people by the Iraqi people. We would stay until the job was done.”
Contrast this unequivocal commitment with the muddle in the U.S. The Baathists and their Islamist terrorist allies murder Americans, Iraqis, and Italians, prompting what appears to be an ever-accelerating U.S. political retreat. Similarly, while the U.S. is adamant that it will reduce troop levels in Iraq, Britain increased the strength of its forces in August and is now considering additional reinforcements.
It is not just that Blair’s Labor party, with an unassailable parliamentary majority, backed him over Iraq. The opposition Conservative party also agrees with his Iraq policy. As a result, the two main parties–which jointly garnered some 72.4 percent of the vote at the last general election in June 2001–were behind the policy of ousting Saddam Hussein. Only the Liberal Democrats, who won just 18.3 percent of the vote, opposed the liberation of Iraq. Blair also won a comfortable majority vote, 396 to 217 in the 659-seat House of Commons, in support of the war on March 18.
Blair’s role in the Iraq war is consistently misunderstood both in the U.S. and Britain, with the British prime minister wrongly portrayed by the antiwar brigade as a camp follower, an unwilling auxiliary tagging along behind President Bush. Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton official, claimed in the Guardian on November 14, 2003, that “Bush originally came to Blair determined to go to war in Iraq, but without a strategy.”
Yet Blair is arguably as much an initiator of the Iraq war as either Bush or the usual neocon suspects. Blair raised the issue of Iraq with Bush in February 2001, the month when the main headlines were Bill Clinton’s presidential pardons. Blair worried that sanctions and containment were crumbling, undermined by Saddam and his allies on the U.N. Security Council, such as France and Russia. Indeed, two months previously, in November 2000, when Americans were arguing over their presidential elections and Iraq was largely debated by Washington policy wonks, the British minister of state for foreign affairs, Peter Hain, had denounced French behavior towards Iraq as “pretty contemptible.”
Why is it then that the British seem to accept that the U.S. must lead, as the sole superpower, while the French chafe at this fact? France, which relies on U.S. technology to maintain the viability of its nuclear deterrent, seems unhappy at the result of the Cold War, while the British make a virtue of necessity. The British understand that the unipolar world is not the result of an American plot. Instead, it is an accident of history. The U.S. is the sole superpower because the other superpower, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Even the conspiracy theorists of the antiwar movement cannot pin the blame for Leonid Brezhnev’s economic incompetence on the neo-cons.
The British government understands the uncomfortable position of the U.S., simultaneously blamed for the world’s ills and called upon to solve them. Blair has cruelly underlined the absurdity of the anti-Americanism of those whose security is guaranteed by us, mocking those who want “the luxury” of being able to criticize the U.S.: “so if the U.S. acts alone, they are unilateralist, but if they want allies, people shuffle to the back.” That British awareness that dependence on the U.S. for security can be dangerous for both sides is what drives Britain to be at the forefront.
In the ongoing battle inside the EU over how to deal with the U.S., it is the French, not the British, who will be on the losing side. As Blair made clear to Congress on July 18 and on November 10, in the traditional foreign-policy speech that prime ministers deliver at the Mansion House, the EU is not just France and Germany. Instead, it is an association that will grow on May 1, 2004, to 25 states, thanks to ten new members, of which eight will be from Eastern Europe. The new EU will have a clear pro-U.S. majority. Already, five current EU members and seven of those set to join in 2004 have troops in Iraq (Bulgaria and Romania, expected to enter the EU in 2007, also have forces in Iraq). Blair reminded Congress in July that the East European states that are about to join the EU “believe in the transatlantic alliance.” Battling against the perception that “Europe” is Chirac and Schroeder, he pleaded with Congress: “So don’t give up on Europe. Work with it.”
That, perhaps, is the crowning irony of President Bush’s trip to Britain: Contrary to much that Americans hear, Britain is not an isolated U.S. ally beside a heaving mass of angry European states. Rather, Britain, and its American alignment, will represent the majority view among EU states, with the ungrateful anti-Americanism of Chirac doomed to be the minority creed.