Simon Williamson

When the bestie says no

2013-08-30 08:30

There's a scene in the feel-good British film Love Actually when the British Prime Minister feels slighted because the US President has used his sway to take advantage of a woman the PM cared for. This ultimately led to a press conference where the Prime Minister got to crap all over the President, saying at one point, "I fear that this [relationship between the countries] has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain."
 
A major reason this part of the movie worked is because it resonated with British people. I lived in the UK in 2002 and again towards the end of the decade, and there was a palpable sense, even among Labour voters who had put Tony Blair in office, that Britain, in particular its foreign policy, was subject to the whims of the Oval Office - and of course there were critics of the whims of US President George W Bush.

Granted, this was anecdotal evidence, and merely what I experienced in my liberal corner of London, but there was polling that backed public sentiment up, particularly once it was discovered the rationale for entering Iraq (of which many were initially sceptical anyway) was bollocks. And as time progressed, support for the war waned, and waned, and waned.
 
On Thursday it appeared the British had learnt some sort of lesson about the Iraq debacle. Although the British (and French) government has been chomping at the bit to respond to allegations of use of Syrian chemical weaponry months before the USA creaked its head in the same direction, British Parliament on Thursday rejected a motion that was intended to introduce Team GB to a military conflict in Syria. It was marginal - 272 to 285 - but enough to show an uncommon streak of independence from the foreign policy wishes of the US.
 
In the recent memory, Britain - with whom the USA shares an oft-repeated "special relationship" - has been involved in every Yankee-led military offensive. And it is because of this the US felt so confident it would have the support of its former owner. TIME Magazine quoted California Senator Dianne Feinstein (who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee) saying before the vote had taken place, "I think the UK makes a difference. I think if the President [Obama] were to decide to go there's a very high likelihood that the United Kingdom would be with us."
 
This means the US now has no support to enter Syria from the United Nations, the Arab League or its BFF - ultimately, this is going to look more and more like the US is acting on its own, which is antithetical to how the Obama administration (and Bush's "coalition of the willing") has tried to conduct foreign policy.
 
And it means that representatives of British people in parliament did what they were supposed to. In fact, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was voted down by a fat portion of his own MPs, who sided with Labour against a British presence in the imminent Syrian offensive. And while the US Presidency has invented for itself a plethora of ways of getting around Congress' requirement for permission to wage war, Cameron told Labour Leader Ed Miliband that he would not use extra-parliamentary power, saying, "I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.
 
"It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action… I get that and the government will act accordingly."
 
Cameron is quite right about where this pressure came from: British people. The British government, as I said earlier, has been very keen for deeper involvement in Syria. The brake was applied by the public.
 
Sadly, the US hardly needs a British blessing to launch strikes of its own. The New York Times reported on Thursday, "[Obama] administration officials made clear that the eroding support would not deter Mr Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike"
 
The US Congress isn't adding much of a hurdle either, with calls from congressional leaders merely asking for "consultation" from the executive and military with the legislature. In this case, the American people wish to stay out of the Syrian civil war by 60% to 9%, according to a Reuters/IPSOS poll, but their representatives seem to be less responsive (or less fearful of fallout).
 
(Sadly, there is an argument to be made the anti-war brigade shut up shop when they got themselves a Democrat president.)  
 
While there remains much over which to criticise Britain, it does seem a lot like its buddy-system with the US is "a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants", usually with the permission of the Prime Minister, and the British people have decided to do something about it.

Jolly good, I say.
 
- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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