The bond between Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush is well-known. In America it was praised. Britons, on the other hand, often winced at Blair’s sycophantic role and sometimes accused him of putting US interests before those of his own people. Now that Blair has moved aside for Gordon Brown and UK troops are heading out of Basra is the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US – first coined by Winston Churchill in 1946 - still as special?

The ‘special relationship’, based on what numerous presidents and prime ministers refer to as “shared values” and “respect for democratic principles”, goes back a long way. In fact, there is much more to it. The two countries share a common language, similar cultural mores, strong economic and trade links, intelligence sharing and defense concerns.

As the sun waned over the British Empire, it became clear that its closeness to the US allowed it to punch above its weight in the global arena. From the American perspective, Britain is personified as a wise, elder statesman, needed to rubber stamp its often unpalatable foreign policies. It further serves as a diplomatic bridge between the US and the EU and is a solid ideological partner in the UN and NATO.

In the past, this symbiotic relationship has been strained but never to actual breaking point.

World War II

For instance, America’s hesitancy in entering World War II on Britain’s side dismayed London struggling to contain the spread of Nazism and defend the home country. Later on, though, Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were particularly close.


Cracks in the alliance formed once again during the 1956 Suez crises when Britain joined with Israel and France to attack Egypt after President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and closed it to Israeli shipping. The US could not be persuaded to join the fray and the failed attack headed by British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden went down in history as one of Britain’s biggest blunders.


When it comes to standing shoulder to shoulder during times of war, the US-UK record looks decidedly sketchy. Each country has gone its own way according to its own national interest and public opinion. Tony Blair’s argument that he had little choice but to take his country into Iraq in order to preserve the special relationship is, therefore, spurious.

Indeed, history records that the Bush administration offered Blair the option of staying on the sidelines in light of an overwhelmingly hostile British public. But Blair was no Harold Wilson and today his legacy is forever tainted with that decision.

Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been likened to Suez, while America’s failures in that country have been compared to Vietnam. Both countries want to extricate themselves from the quagmire of their own making without admitting defeat or leaving behind a security vacuum, which eager regional powers are anxious to fill.

Gordon Brown

Britain’s new Prime Minister Gordon Brown is doing a clever balancing act. It is thought he is strongly pro-American but not necessarily pro-Bush. He is also careful not to be perceived as anyone’s lapdog and is keen to distinguish himself from his predecessor in both substance and style.

Brown’s choice of anti-Iraq War cabinet members and statements from several of them to the effect the leaders of Britain and the US would no longer be joined at the hip, prompted the new PM to hotfoot it over to Washington so as to allay fears.

His meeting with George Bush at Camp David came hard on the heels of a statement from Lord Malloch Brown, a junior Foreign Minister, who said he hated being painted as anti-American but was “happy to be described as anti-neo-con”, and hoped Britain’s foreign policy would become more impartial.

The International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander also ruffled Washington’s feathers when speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations. While acknowledging the special relationship he also stressed that Britain “must form new alliances, based on common values, ones not just to protect us from the world but ones which reach out to the world”.

“In the 20th century, a country’s might was too often measured in what they could destroy,” he said. “In the 21st century it should be measured by what we can build together.” The speech was later interpreted to be a snipe at America’s misuse of power.

The Camp David tryst was carefully analyzed. Would Brown and Bush gel in the way that Blair and Bush had from the get-go?

In the event it was clear that these were no political and personal soul mates sharing a love for the same brand of toothpaste. Both men were formally dressed and their conversation picked up my media microphones was awkward. “Do you come here often?” asked Brown, who looked uncomfortable being driven around by the grinning Texan in a golf cart.

The wives were left at home and whereas, Bush effusively praised his British guest, Brown reserved his praise for the US, stressing on the two countries’ shared history and shared values. Brown also remarked that their conversation behind closed doors had been “frank”, which is often diplomatic-speak for confrontational.

If, indeed, there had been a disagreement it was probably over Brown’s intention of pulling out British troops from southern Iraq. There are only 5,500 left in country, which at the time of writing are holed-up behind the walls of Basra Airport waiting for a politically opportune moment to fly home to Mum.

In fact, 5,500 troops are a mere drop in the ocean compared to the US force of over 160,000 but their presence serves as a political fig leaf for Bush to continue with his unpopular war. When they leave, the US will have to dispatch troops to guard the supply route between Baghdad to Kuwait as well as sensitive petrochemical facilities.

One of the US architects of the so-called troop surge strategy Frederick Kagan warned a British exit risked creating “bad feeling” among US troops who may be ordered to extend their terms of duty to fill the void.

It’s no secret that Bush has asked Gordon Brown to stay with the program and complete the job (whatever that is). Unlike Blair, Brown doesn’t have that luxury.

The British public and most politicians have had enough of the Iraq mess and with an election on the cards – perhaps as early as this autumn – Brown, currently way ahead in the polls, has to play to the gallery.

If Bush and Brown are publicly adhering to diplomatic niceties, their respective militaries aren’t pulling any punches.

In August, a US commander accused Britain of allowing the security situation in southern Iraq to deteriorate by disengaging.

On September 1, General Sir Mike Jackson, who led British troops during the invasion, refuted the allegation that British forces had failed in Basra. Moreover, he lashed out at the Pentagon for disbanding the Iraqi army and binning State Department post-invasion plans.

Gen. Jackson also criticized former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for saying US forces “don’t do nation-building”. US postwar policy was “intellectually bankrupt”, Jackson said.

Various UK military leaders have also attacked their American counterparts for being trigger happy, causing civilian casualties and blue-on-blue deaths as well as failing to win hearts and minds. Bush’s advisors have, in turn, slammed Britain for the chaos in southern Iraq and for what they term as ‘cutting and running’.

An article in Lebanon’s Daily Star by Michael Glackin titled “Is the special relationship unraveling?” accuses Gordon Brown of being more Machiavellian than Blair.

“In reality, Brown is as keen to maintain the laughingly lopsided ‘special relationship’ with the US as all his predecessors were, from Winston Churchill to Tony Blair. But Brown can recognize a lame-duck president when he sees one,” Glackin writes.

Thus far Brown has done an excellent job of distancing himself from Bush’s unpopular policies and Bush the man while, at the same time, being careful not to terminally alienate Uncle Sam.

He is also adhering to a policy of good cop/bad cop, giving free rein to his ministers to say what must be said followed by his own brand of damage control. Such mixed messages are confusing which is exactly what they are designed to be.

Brown is obviously hoping to walk the diplomatic tightrope until the next US election when the next US President may be more embraceable.

There’s a good chance he can succeed…unless…between now and then Washington launches another war. In that case, which way will Brown jump?

Will he emulate Harold Wilson who said ‘no’ to Vietnam or Tony Blair, who led his nation kicking and screaming into Iraq? That is the question. And only Brown and his maker know the answer.

As for the special relationship it may be going through a temporary blip but like Siamese twins Britain and the US are inextricably bound together.

Even though many Britons believe it’s a one-way street with Britain giving the most, if the pair were ever prized apart there is no doubt Britain would incur the greatest losses. It would not be able to stand alone in multi-polar world and would risk ending up a small EU country dwarfed by France and Germany.

There will always be ripples and rows. Currently it may be bruised and battered. But the special relationship – barring unforeseen circumstances - will always remain.

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