Barack Obama’s increasing disregard for Britain’s views is no way to treat an ally whose troops have fought side by side with America since September 11, says Con Coughlin
It says much about Britain’s rapidly disappearing ‘special relationship’ with America that when I happened to mention to some of our senior military officers that I was visiting Washington, they begged me to find out what the Obama administration was thinking about Afghanistan. It is not just that the transatlantic lines of communication, so strong just a few years ago, have fallen into disuse. There is now a feeling that, even if we reached the Oval Office, there would be no one willing to take Britain’s call.
For weeks now, President Obama has been deliberating over what the Afghan strategy should be — and how many troops to send. If there is confusion in Washington, then Britain’s strategy is not much clearer. Gordon Brown has staged a recent flurry of activity on the subject, from writing misspelt letters to grieving mothers to demanding that an exit strategy be established for the withdrawal of British forces. Yet among our top brass, the general perception is that the Prime Minister has little interest in the war.
It is often as if Brown regards the Afghan campaign as a dead fish that Tony Blair has left in the top drawer of his Downing Street desk. It has infected his premiership with a foul odour, and he wants to be rid of it as soon as possible. This explains his promise, on Monday, to set a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops at the earliest available opportunity. The signal is sent that an exit is not just in sight, but being approached.
Brown’s approach hardly squares with his Foreign Secretary’s assertion, made the next day in his address to Nato’s Parliamentary Assembly, that British forces should remain until the Afghans are strong enough to take care of their own affairs. Miliband might have his faults, such as his obsessive enthusiasm for Europe. But he is sound on Afghanistan where — unlike the prime minister — he has been an articulate and well-informed advocate of the Nato cause. One has the feeling that, if Mr Obama were able to talk about Afghanistan, Mr Miliband could have a decent conversation with him.
But the very fact that these policy divisions are now starting to appear in London is symptomatic of a far deeper malaise that lies at the heart of Afghan policy-making; it is a malaise that now threatens to jeopardise the success of the entire mission. And this malaise is the absence of meaningful dialogue between the White House and its hitherto most stalwart and reliable ally, particularly when it comes to the messy business of confronting Islamist militants through force of arms.
We all had a good giggle when Brown was reduced to chasing the Leader of the Free World through the subterranean kitchen complex at the UN’s New York headquarters in September. One can understand why Obama can think of a million better ways to spend his time than talking to our obsessive, nail-chewing and electorally doomed prime minister. But given that Britain and America are currently fighting a war together, one would hope that the true statesman would overcome any personal reservations — and deal with Mr Brown because of the country he represents.
What really troubles British policymakers is that the collapse in the relationship is institutional, not personal, and that the president has little interest in listening to what Britain has to say on many world issues, even at a time when British servicemen and women are sacrificing their lives in what is supposed to be a common cause.
The astonishing disregard with which Mr Obama treats Britain has been made clear by his deliberations over the Afghan issue. As he decides how many more troops to send to Afghanistan — a decision which will fundamentally affect the scope of the mission — Britain is reduced to guesswork. The White House does not even pretend to portray this as a joint decision. It is a diplomatic cold-shouldering that stands in contrast not just to the Blair–Bush era, but to the togetherness of the soldiers on the ground.
One of the enduring cornerstones of the transatlantic alliance is the deep bond that exists between the British and American armed forces. The strength of the American military might be many times that available to Britain but, as any senior officer will tell you, on either side of the Atlantic, they are so close as to be joined at the hip. From the moment they sign up, young American and British officers train together, socialise together and — since 9/11 — have fought and died together.
The relaxed familiarity between the two martial traditions was reflected in the warmth with which General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, referred during his recent visit to London to British contemporaries such as ‘Jacko’, General Sir Michael Jackson, former head of the British army, and ‘Lamby’, Lt-Gen Sir Graeme Lamb, who is currently spending his well-earned retirement in Kabul helping to devise a new counter-insurgency strategy to defeat the Taleban. So far as Afghanistan is concerned, it would be fair to say that American and British military commanders are singing from the same Afghan prayer mat.
Indeed, there was no shortage of enthusiasm on the part of the British military, or any of the other Whitehall departments involved in the Afghan campaign, to support Obama when he announced last March a new counter-insurgency strategy based on an Iraq-like military ‘surge’. McChrystal was personally appointed by Obama to make the policy a success, and General Sir David Richards, himself a former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, was one of a number of senior army officers who quickly got behind the new initiative. So, too, did the redoubtable Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, our former ambassador to Kabul, who drafted numerous briefing documents making the case for greater co-operation and cohesion within Whitehall, and the development of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that encompassed all the participants, and not just the military.
So where are they now, all these bright initiatives? Why is it that the Foreign Office and our senior military commanders are as much in the dark as anyone else as to what the strategy for Afghanistan is to be? We don’t know, because Mr Obama is too busy cosying up to his new chums in Moscow and Beijing to tell us. And as we stumble around in the policy darkness, there is the inevitable tendency to make it up as we go along. Hence the conflicting policy edicts issued this week by Messrs Brown and Miliband.
The trouble started in the summer, when Obama appears to have had a change of heart and, rather than proceeding with the Afghan strategy he announced in March, decided to undertake a review of it instead. And in the process of so doing he has provided us with a telling insight into how we can expect the Obama presidency to function in future.
Much of the criticism, at home and abroad, concerning the Afghan policy review has tended to focus on accusations of White House dithering which, after nearly three and a half months, is not entirely without foundation. But what should be far more worrying for all those countries, such as Britain, that had looked forward to co-operating with Obama’s apparent desire to reach out and engage with America’s allies is the exclusivity of his style of decision-making — if you can call it that.
As General McChrystal has found to his cost, Obama and his inner circle of Chicago pols do not take kindly to being second-guessed by those whose advice they seek, but have every right to reject. There is no reason to doubt McChrystal’s gloomy prediction — which is generally endorsed by Whitehall — that without an extra 40,000 Nato troops the Afghan mission is doo
med to failure. But talk to any Obama aide these days and they will tell you that, fine soldier though he undoubtedly is, McChrystal is politically naive, spoke out of turn and now thoroughly regrets the day he ever set foot in a London think tank, where he stated his case too explicitly for the White House’s liking. One recent two-hour Afghan strategy meeting spent 24 minutes discussing whether McChrystal was the right man for the job after all. In other words, to use the phrase- ology popular in Chicago, he’s dead meat.
Obama, meanwhile, has made his own deliberations so secretive that only about three people in the whole of Washington — and, ergo, the rest of the world — know precisely what he has in mind, and none of them is talking. Even President George W. Bush, who was frequently criticised for his arrogance and unilateralism, was better than this. From 9/11 until the Iraq war, he kept Tony Blair and other trusted allies (there weren’t that many, let’s face it) fully briefed on what he was planning — so much so that Blair is now accused of colluding with him to invade Iraq from the spring of 2002.
But with Obama there are no regular video-conferences bringing Downing Street up to date on the latest White House thinking. No special envoys making secret visits to London to keep the key players informed. Instead we will have to wait, like everyone else, for the puffs of smoke from the White House — which are now expected around the Thanksgiving holiday — to find out what Obama really intends to do about Afghanistan. He is, in all too many ways, an AWOL ally.
Nor is it just on Afghanistan that we can discern a high-handed approach from the American president. Did Obama bother to consult Britain before cancelling the missile shield system for Eastern Europe (the early-warning detection system is, after all, based at RAF Fylingdales on the North Yorkshire Moors)? No he did not. The Poles, who are rightly sensitive about their security being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with their super-power neighbours, had to make do with a late-night call from Hillary Clinton on the eve of the announcement — the Poles understandably turned down the call, a breach of both manners and protocol. In his keenness to befriend Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, had Obama taken any account of the widespread European unease concerning the mood of resurgent nationalism sweeping Moscow? Not a chance.
And to judge from his recent peregrinations around the Far East, it seems Obama is far more interested in making new friends than taking the trouble to keep up with old acquaintances. The enthusiasm he displayed when he bumped into Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister, during this week’s Apec summit in Singapore was considerably greater than he has shown for many of his European allies. Not for Medvedev the indignity of conducting important bilateral discussions in kitchens surrounded by vats of boiling noodles. And in Beijing Obama spent a convivial evening with President Hu Jintao, discussing the evolution and histories of China and America. Being an American ally has never seemed so unrewarding.
There will, though, inevitably come a time when Obama discovers who America’s true friends really are. Sooner or later he will have to deal with the considerably more taxing issues of Islamist militancy, rogue nuclear states and other tangible threats to the West’s security. At that point, Obama will discover a simple but essential truth. The world divides between those who support American values of freedom and democracy, and those who seek to destroy them.
Few nations have been more committed to supporting those values with both blood and treasure than Britain. This country, and especially those British troops fighting alongside their American counterparts, deserve far better than this president’s disregard.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s executive foreign editor and author of Khomeini’s Ghost: Iran since 1979 (Macmillan).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 21, 2009