BBC/HBO co-production "The Special Relationship" on UK TV

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I will leave it for film critics to decide whether or not Michael Sheen improves upon his earlier incarnations as Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s third dramatisation of New Labour. It is appropriate here, however, given the montage of news snippets and recreations of public speeches in the docudrama The Special Relationship, that we look at Blair’s lobbying, Bill Clinton’s dilly-dallying, and the legacy of liberal interventionism more generally. The fact that the British playwright says “we were fact-checked to death on this,” is reason enough.

John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby” is one of the most controversial articles of the decade. Notwithstanding Osama bin Laden’s endorsement of the 2007 book version on the one hand and allegations of anti-Semitism on the other, though, talk of individuals working on behalf of a country to influence the policy process of the world’s only superpower is valid. We see this recently with the publication of Mitchell Bard’s The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East. And after watching this BBC/HBO co-production, viewers would be forgiven for thinking that Blair headed something resembling, well, a British lobby.

“He understands the limitations of power … but just refuses to be limited by them,” the newly-elected Blair says about Clinton early on. While the leader of the free world provides some much-needed diplomatic clout and applies political pressure on Gerry Adams to revive the Irish peace process (something reiterated by Blair when he was presented with the Liberty Medal in honour of his work for global human rights), however, it is a centre-left leader from northern Europe, not North America, who is the senior partner when it comes to what NATO should do in the former Yugoslavia.

“Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing US support,” Mearsheimer and Walt state in their 2006 London Review of Books essay. Speaking at the Economic Club of Chicago in 1999, Blair does nothing if not take control of the discussion of peacekeeping enforcement. But as the political scientists remind us, for all an interest group’s lobbying, the Americans “do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying.” Indeed. And this is brilliantly illustrated in two scenes were Blair requests that Clinton commit to a ground campaign.

The first is during a frank exchange in the Oval Office when a Clinton adviser says: “We get the point Prime Minister, you’re ready to fight to the last American.” The second is after the Chicago Tribune hailed “King Tony” for his Churchillian speech, when the President asks the PM: “What kind of a king begs others to do his fighting for him?”

As gripping as Morgan’s screenplay is, however, chronicling as it does Blair’s zealous interventionist streak, viewers learn next to nothing about why the 42nd President of the United States prefers to bomb Slobodan Milosevic from 15,000 feet. “The CNN Effect” – as simplistic as it is to some – provides answers. We hear Clinton’s reaction over the phone to news footage of the atrocities taking place in the disputed territory. Yet we are not told about President George H.W. Bush’s reaction to graphic pictures of starving Somali children or, more appropriately, the part played by images of dead American soldiers on his successor’s decision to pull out from the Horn of Africa.

The loss of 18 US Army Rangers during the “Battle of Mogadishu” impacted greatly on post-Cold War foreign policy, and, like Vietnam, Somalia soon earned itself the second-most famous suffix to be applied to it (the first being “-gate”). The Somalia Syndrome acted as midwife to the birth of a precautionary attitude toward intervention in intrastate conflicts. Fixated in not “crossing the Mogadishu line,” the Clinton administration reverted back to Cold War thinking about state-centric threats to US national security.

Notwithstanding polling data discounting the “body bag” theory (what IR lecturer, Leonie Murray, describes as “the more fatalities the American people observe returning home from a conflict situation, the more negatively they will respond to involvement in that conflict”), though, the sensitivity about taking casualties forever shackled the commander in chief’s decision-making. We see this not only with regard to the humanitarian effort at the end of the 1990s, but during the political crisis in Haiti in the early 1990s and over the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s, too.

Overlooking Somalia’s legacy is one thing; omitting the legacy of liberal interventionism in Kosovo is quite another, however. Morgan will no doubt illuminate that the road taken to Baghdad goes through the Balkans in his fourth and final take on Blair’s premiership. (The current Middle East peace envoy does say, after all, in A Journey: My Political Life, that Kosovo informed his subsequent decisions on Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.) In this instance, though, it must be said that the screenwriter fails to highlight the difference Operation Allied Force made to ethnic Albanians.

This is not to say that Morgan’s third installment is not worth watching. Blair’s jibes toward members of the European Union, to be sure, are reason enough to purchase the DVD. One example is after his declaration to Jacques Chirac – “I am European. I have always been European. I will always be European” – he says to aides Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell: “I almost believed it myself.” Another is when he cuts off the French President in order to receive a congratulatory phone call from Bill.

Blair hanging up on Chirac may be “ludicrous stuff,” according to Campbell. Yet he and others must expect the odd fabrication here and there given the producers’ artistic licence. What is not to be expected, though, is a complete distortion of history. It is no wonder, then, that the former spin doctor describes the ending as “fanciful” given “the final scenes expose the film-makers’ real agenda – to have the Clinton character warning [Blair] in lurid terms not to get too close to [George] Bush.”

Whilst it may be too much to expect Morgan to illuminate Iraq’s emergence as a functioning Arab democracy, let us hope he includes (if not concludes) his forthcoming script with footage of Blair meeting nine boys named after him in central Pristina when a choir of Toniblers sang Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” against the backdrop of a huge billboard that said “a leader, a friend, a hero”.

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