Gordon Brown flies into Washington this week a day after the pope does. The timing is unfortunate for the dour British prime minister, whose D.C. visit will be hugely overshadowed by the eagerly anticipated arrival of the far more dynamic Benedict XVI. Whereas tens of thousands of Americans will queue up for a glimpse of John Paul II’s successor, Brown will garner little public attention outside the White House, where he meets with President Bush on Thursday. His predecessor Tony Blair always attracted intense interest on his numerous trips to Washington. But Brown is no Blair.
The new Labour prime minister will no doubt be hoping for a little of the pope’s popularity to rub off on him — as he probably needs a minor miracle to rescue his political fortunes. Brown’s approval rating is stunningly low — and if a general election were held today, Conservative David Cameron would be the new British prime minister.
Divine intervention might be required to improve the state of U.S.-UK relations, which have deteriorated since Blair left Downing Street last June. While the Anglo-American “special relationship” continues at many levels behind the scenes — from intelligence cooperation to collaboration over missile defense — significant signs of strain are beginning to show over the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the broader war against Islamist terrorism.
In a disturbing move, Gordon Brown’s government has dropped the 60-year old phrase “special relationship.” Meanwhile, in deference to the European Union, Britain’s newly unveiled National Security Strategy points out that while “the partnership with the United States is our most important bilateral relationship,” the “EU has a vital role in securing a safer world both within and beyond the borders of Europe” — putting Brussels on at least equal footing with Washington. Ironically, while Brown has avoided the term, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy used it when he addressed the House of Commons last month to refer admiringly to the Anglo-American alliance.
The Brown administration is likewise leery of any reference to the “war on terror.” The NSS even states that “while terrorism represents a threat to all our communities, and an attack on our way of life, it does not at present amount to a strategic threat” — a staggeringly naive assessment considering that British intelligence estimates that al-Qaeda has at least 2,000 operatives in the U.K. In contrast to Bush and Blair, Brown’s government refuses to acknowledge that Islamist terrorism is out to destroy Western civilization, and instead treats the al-Qaeda threat as a domestic law-and-order problem.
Brown’s government refuses to increase British defense spending, which currently stands at less than 2.3 percent of GDP, its lowest level since the 1930s (the U.S. spends 3.7 percent of GDP). Britain’s military is massively overstretched and under-funded, with huge manpower and equipment shortages, and faces billions of dollars in further cuts over the next few years. The decline in British military power is highlighted by the gutting of the Royal Navy, which has dwindled from 136 ships and 38 submarines in 1987 to now just 75 and 13, respectively. Today, it would be almost impossible for Britain to mount a military operation like the 1982 Falklands War. As U.K. Shadow Defense Secretary Liam Fox has commented, “Labour has done what none of this country’s enemies have been able to do: bring the Navy to its knees.”
The decline in British military capability is a major concern for the U.S., increasing the global burden on America’s armed forces and reducing the force projection of Washington’s only large-scale military ally.
In the recent battle for Basra between Iraqi security forces and the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army led by Moqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. air force and hundreds of American ground forces were involved in the Iraqi offensive to retake the city; British soldiers stationed outside the city were ordered by their political superiors not to intervene, except for limited logistical and artillery support.
The non-involvement of British forces was the product of both dramatically weakened troop strength (down to 4,100 men from a height of 45,000), and a lack of political will on the part of the British government, which fears the negative impact that troop casualties have on the home front, and the prospect of taking on Iranian-trained and -funded militias. The lack of British commitment to the war in southern Iraq will ultimately force the U.S. to deploy thousands of soldiers to the region, picking up the slack left by the British Army and weakening America’s ability to combat al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates in central and northern Iraq.
In Afghanistan, the 8,000 British troops on the ground are far more engaged, and play a major role in Helmand Province. Still, the bravery of British soldiers there is being undermined by poor political leadership in London, as well as by shortages of equipment, vehicles, and helicopters.
Britain’s part-time Defense Secretary Des Browne (also Scotland’s secretary of state), gave an extraordinary interview recently which revealed the appeasement mentality at the heart of Gordon Brown’s government. In comments to the Sunday Telegraph, Browne called for negotiations with elements of both the Taliban and Hezbollah, saying: “What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept their political ambitions will be delivered by politics.” Such wishful thinking can only undermine morale among British forces fighting in Afghanistan, and sharply illustrates the divide that exists between the U.S. and U.K. over fundamental aspects of the war on terror. This followed the February’s revelation in the Financial Times that the British government had secret plans to build training camps in Helmand for former Taliban fighters, a move strongly condemned by the Karzai government.
When he arrives in Washington this week, Gordon Brown will have a major credibility problem. It is hard to be taken seriously as a supporter of the Anglo-American alliance when he has banned his diplomats from using the term “special relationship.” Nor can he be seen as a reliable military partner when he refuses to support a robust role for British troops in Iraq and allows Britain’s armed forces to wither through budgetary neglect. Nor is he helped by a defense secretary who believes Britain should be talking to Hezbollah.
The U.S.-UK alliance has been the most successful partnership of modern times — a far more effective defender of the free world than any international organization. If the special relationship were to collapse, the security and prosperity of both the United States and Great Britain would suffer. Its demise would also embolden our mutual enemies, leaving the world a far more dangerous place. It remains to be seen if the special relationship can survive Gordon Brown’s determined indifference. With all the clergy in D.C. this week, this intention should be on their prayer list.
– Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.