Gordon Brown flies to Washington today (where, inter alia, he will have meetings with McCain, Clinton and Obama) so, naturally, this is the cue for fresh fretting over US-UK relations. Nile Gardner, currently exiled at the Heritage Foundation, duly volunteers for duty:
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.
I hold no brief for Gordon Brown and some of Gardiner's criticisms are justified, but this is really going too far. Only a politician convinced of his own infallibility or impervious to domestic political concerns would have any desire to be seen with, let alone supporting, George W Bush. There's no real point in addressing the state of the transatlanic relationship until a new President has been installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But Gardiner's argument is one you can offer hear from British conservatives: the atlantic alliance is a bulwark against Europe. Consequently it is always in jeopardy, threatened by any hint of increased European defence co-operation. Secondly, this means Britain must always choose between Washington and Brussels. Now, it may well be difficult, even perilously awkward, to try and have both but that still seems the sensible place for Britain to occupy until such a balancing act ecomes impossible. Why choose when there's no need to do so? (And as I've written before, American conservatives don't actually want Europe to spend more on defence if that increases a European capacity for independent action outwith American oversight or approval).
And rather than whining about dropping phrases such as "Special Relationship" or "War on Terror" mightn't it be more useful to ask what those rusty cliches actually mean? Abandoning the former is in any case a reflection of this American President's unpopularity in Britain; dropping the latter seems perfectly sensible given that most people, whether rightly or not, don't actually see this as a "War" in the terms in which the word is generally understood.
For sure, "Islamist terrorism" is a threat, but it's not so ridiculous to suppose that it can be contained, at the domestic level, by police actions. Even if terrorism is "out to destroy Western civilisation" that scarcely means the populace needs to be placed on a "war footing". In six years since Septermber 11th 2001, there has been precisely one successful terrorist attack in Brtain. Now, again, that doesn't mean the "war" is over, but it does suggest that for all the rhtoric and, doubtless, for all the mayhem Islamist terrorist would like to be able to unleash they have, thus far at least, been uable to perpetrate outrages to match their rhetoric. This, clearly, is not a call for complacency, but nor does it suggest a need for hysteria.
In any case, if, god forbid, a "dirty bomb" explodes in London or Birmingham it seems obvious that this will be bcause of a police and intelligence - ie, law-and-order - breakdown rather than attributable to a military failure or an unwillingness to couch the "struggle" in sufficiently robust or apocalyptic language.