George W. Bush announced during his State of the Union message that America and its allies will disarm Iraq with or without the UN. If America, as appears increasingly likely, gets war, it will be thanks in large part to Tony Blair and Britain. But what will Tony Blair and Britain get thanks to America?
A typical American would answer (a) that’s the wrong question, and (b) quite a lot. If Tony Blair is America’s poodle, then his yap is being heard. Britain stands higher in US estimation than at any time since 1945. Recent opinion polls yield results that could make an American question whether Britain was a foreign country at all. When Gallup asked Americans last week whether they could ‘count on’ Germany, they replied ‘No’, by 51 per cent to 40 – which places Germans at roughly Saudi Arabian levels of trustworthiness. France ranked even lower, down with China. But asked whether America could count on Britain, respondents said ‘Yes’ – by 95 to 5.
It’s true that Americans can be fickle judges on such matters. After Gerhard Schroeder’s repudiation of American war plans last autumn, France was in marvellous odour in Washington for several weeks, and pundits waxed lyrical about the two democratic republics with their tradition of exporting universal values. But after France embraced the German position at the anniversary of the ElysZe pact in mid-January, a betrayal so wounding that even Colin Powell lost his patience with pleading Europeans’ cause, all that changed. The Simpsons’ description of the French as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ has stuck. The name of the French foreign minister is on the lips of even the proletarian commuters who listen to Rush Limbaugh, ever since the chat-show host insisted that the country shouldn’t be taking foreign policy advice from someone named Dominique de Villepin. Those suspected of appeasement are routinely branded with the epithet ‘Monsieur’.
Stateside, the Franco-German dZmarche helped Blair in two ways. First, it spawned a wave of stories about the unpopularity of the US war aims in Britain, making Americans aware (for the first time, amazingly enough) how much political capital Blair is expending to back them. But second, it led to a growing feeling that, unless you’ve recently spent decades as Top Nation yourself, you can’t get where we’re coming from. ‘When Britain stopped the slave trade on the high seas,’ notes the strategic thinker Gary Schmitt, who chairs the neoconservative think-tank, the Project for a New American Century, ‘it didn’t ask other countries if they thought it was a good idea.’
It may be too early to say that Blair has spawned another wave of British chic, but Americans are mighty impressed by Plucky Little England. Except for the Boston Globe, where the Bush-Blair relationship has been addressed by the old Scotsman editor Tim Luckhurst (who hopefully warns of ‘regime change’ in London), the newspapers have been overwhelmingly supportive. Cal Thomas, a Christian conservative who is the most widely syndicated columnist in the United States, called Blair’s recent defence of his American tilt – with particular reference to his evisceration of Dennis Skinner – ‘Tony Blair’s finest hour’.
This does not mean that Americans now follow the ins and outs of British government. Most couldn’t recount Blair’s travails with Gordon Brown, but they do know who Brown is. They even know who Clare Short is. Such names find their way into American consciousness through the Economist and the Financial Times (which is now delivered door to door). Parliamentary Question Time, which airs on the round-the-clock political network C-Span, used to be rebroadcast as a 3 a.m. novelty show for drunks who don’t mind watching shows they don’t understand -along the lines of Australian rules football. Now it airs live and, on big Iraq days, is switched on all over Washington.
Americans, by and large, would assent to Blair’s characterisation of Britain as the ‘pivotal power’. This is largely because of the public-relations performance of Blair himself. On a day-to-day basis, Blair has pressed the American case with considerably more eloquence than Bush has. Last September, when Bush’s UN resolution showed signs of flagging, it was not any White House-generated spin that provided American hawks with their intellectual case for an Iraq intervention. It was Blair’s speech to Parliament (and his simultaneous release of the 50-page Joint Intelligence Committee dossier) that did it. (Apparently the American decline in manufacturing has proceeded so far that we can no longer even manufacture rationales.)
One mustn’t go overboard on Britain’s importance. When Andrew Rawnsley writes in the Observer that ‘America cannot act without Tony Blair’, he sounds like those cocksure German columnists who insist that the United States will never go to war without the five chemical-weapons tanks the Bundeswehr has parked in Kuwait. But this does not mean that Britain is merely supplying extra matZriel for an adventure that America would have embarked on anyway. The State of the Union speech made plain to American observers that Blair had been let in, well before the fact, on plans that were not leaked to any other ally. His Monday statements anticipated Bush’s shifting of the criteria for invasion from weapons searches to non-compliance. (‘These are not things you lose like a pair of house keys around the house,’ Downing Street had said. ‘They are deadly weapons.’) There were even indications that Blair had devised this new tack. By the time Bush on Wednesday introduced Americans to the limitations of ‘scavenging’ for weapons, Blair had already been deriding the UN’s game of ‘hide and seek’ for a week.
It is one of the ironies of the present anti-war climate in Britain that the ‘idealists’ who seek to keep Britain out of Iraq are the ones clamouring most loudly for some French- or Russian-style brass-tacks material reward for participation. Tasteless though the wish may be, concrete benefits are likely to materialise in postwar Iraq, where Britain will be in a much stronger commercial position than its EU partners. Richard Whalen, a savvy consultant and author with a record of being right about such things, predicts that France will enter at the last possible moment, in order to exercise maximum sway over a postwar Iraq with minimum Arab-world friction and risk to life or limb. France’s assumption is that, once the war is successfully concluded, the United States will have such an interest in maintaining Western comity that it will not risk the bad public relations of being seen to reward and punish allies.
But France miscalculates. It may have grown so fond of its own proconsular reading of American intentions that it fails to see that postwar Iraq could be run much like postwar Afghanistan. Under such a set-up, Iraq’s oil concessions would be the natives’ to grant. If, as is Washington’s hope, the invaders are viewed as liberators, postwar Iraqis (ferociously anti-Saddam, of course, and under American tutelage) can be expected to be considerably more indulgent of their stalwart allies than of fence-sitting opportunists. In such a regime, BP, let’s say, would be considerably more likely to win favour from Iraq’s government than the French petrochemical entrepreneurs who are even now swarming about the frontiers. The United States would not be faced with the embarrassing need to discipline France at all.
The Afghan model, if followed, will also be a windfall for Britain militarily. As Gary Schmitt points out, during the Afghanistan phase of the war on terror, the US gave Britain numerous cruise missiles, and with them much of its most advanced technology. Such operational details are played close to the chest in times of conflict, but military strategists say it’s likely that Britain is receiving another fresh batch of te
chnology even now. If so, this will have profound implications for Britain’s standing in the world. Three years ago, the then French foreign minister Hubert VZdrine, fretting over the American hyperpuissance, consoled himself by considering that France was one of a half-dozen ‘countries of global reach’. (Britain, China, India, Russia and Japan were the others.) France’s geostrategic goal was to play the role of the mini-America in the mini-world of a United Europe. And yet France’s technology gap with the United States has so widened that when the anti-American French demographer Emmanuel Todd speculated how France could close its ‘capabilities gap’, he could come up with no scenario more plausible than that an impoverished Russia, for a few nugatory economic considerations, might share its nuclear arsenal. Europe now looks more likely to modernise militarily than it did a year ago; but it looks likely to do so under British, not French, leadership.
But we should not ignore the possibility that Blair’s personal ambitions may be idealistic ones. A centrepiece of Bush’s State of the Union was his $15-billion African Aids initiative. This sort of humanitarianism for the global era is where Blair has always sought to leave his mark. In Washington a few months ago, it appeared that his preoccupation with Third World debt cancellation was snowballing into a major project. The project has in recent months lost its most powerful Washington backer, the former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill. But one powerful American Democrat close to Blair says that Blair would like to press this project, and would prefer that America take the lead on this. (There would, of course, be non-idealistic benefits, too. Politically, it may be the only project that Blair, Brown and Short ever agree on. Economically, British banks are no keener that the Third World turn into a perpetual liquidity trap than is Blair the Gladstonian that it turn into a moral cesspool.)
An advanced arsenal is something Britain is already building – thanks to Blair’s alliance with the United States. An idealistic role is something it can easily reclaim – if Blair’s alliance with the United States endures. And with an economy in far better shape than that of the United States, no Continental-style structural unemployment, and a culture that operates in the world’s global language, Britain could find itself (along with the United States and China) one of the world’s three Great Powers, the first European country to reclaim such a status. If Blair has his way, it will richly deserve it.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.