Lee Ruddin: Blair, Cameron and the True Dynamics of the UK-U.S. “Special Relationship”

Roundup: Media's Take

Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.

It has recently been reported that David Cameron declined to take a phone call from Barack Obama because he was finishing a game of tennis. The claim is made by Charlie Brooks, an old school chum of Cameron’s from Eton, who allegedly visited the Prime Minister’s (PM’s) official residence in Chequers – racket to hand – and was busy playing a tie-break, third set when the President called. Downing Street, not surprisingly, has been quick to deny the Racing Post’s report and questioned Mr. Brooks’ recollection of events, insisting that while records show the pair had indeed played a game in August 2010, no phone call was logged from the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) during match play.

Another recent report of interest to students of Anglo-American relations relates to the publication of Kofi Annan’s memoirs. In it (InterventionsA Life in War and Peace), the former United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General claims that Tony Blair could have halted George W. Bush’s plans to ouster Saddam Hussein. In an exclusive interview with the The Times, Annan says that if Tony parted company with George after failing to acquire a second U.N. Security Council Resolution (S.C.R.), it would have given the Bush Administration ‘pause for thought’, so influential was the ex-PM’s standing inside the Beltway.

Both reports have attracted little readership to date but should be taken with a pinch of salt, cynics would no doubt say, since the two aforementioned authors are currently promoting books and eager to attract as much interest as possible. For me, however, the reports illuminate the true dynamics of the UK-U.S. “Special Relationship,” albeit in microcosm, and undermine the “poodle” thesis. Let me explain why I think Cameron is confident enough to snub Obama but only after illustrating why Blair was so integral to the invasion of Iraq.

First things first, Blair’s Britain could not have prevented Bush’s bellicose America from invading Iraq in 2003; the stench of death from 9/11 still hung over those in the Pentagon and few were surprised when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said ‘we can go it alone’ on the eve of war. This is not to say that Blair played no role, though. Indeed, as his Director of Communications records in the fourth volume of The Alastair Diaries: The Burden of Power – Countdown to Iraq, Bush left it to Blair to cajole Dick Cheney, a staunch unilateralist, into going down the U.N. route.

Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, was young, articulate and charismatic, as we all know – but so was Blair. Indeed, it was the latter who also cajoled the former into a pursuing a different (read: more activist) course of action in Kosovo with talk of deploying ground troops (which brought Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table) and recommended they radically overhaul (NATO) decision-making machinery. A month into the Kosovo campaign, Blair delivered a speech in Chicago outlining a ‘new doctrine of international community’ that explicitly rejected the narrow view of national interest and advocated intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, which, more than anything else, illuminated the difference between (say Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, coauthors of America Between the Wars) Clinton’s ‘wobbly leadership and Blair’s steadfast resolve’ in an ever-increasingly dangerous and globalized world. 

‘What Blair did in Chicago [at the Economic Club on 22 April 1999]’, historian Andrew Roberts writes, ‘was to expand the specific case of Kosovo into a general right to intervene if … criteria were met.’ So much so, in fact, the author of A History of the English Speaking-Peoples Since 1900 cautions against students and scholars displaying myopia when attributing the “revolutionary” doctrine of preemptive war solely to American neoconservatives: 

Blair’s speech (the Blair Doctrine) in Chicago mentioned the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by name as a possible future candidate for removal from office, a full eighteen months before George W. Bush had even arrived at the White House, and nearly four years before the war against Iraq. To present Blair as a mere poodle of the Americans, therefore, represents a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics of the Special Relationship.

So influential was Blair on global events that journalists on the ground in Syria today (Luke Bozier, to name but one, writing in The Independent) ask not how Clinton would have reacted, or if Bush would have waged war, but rather: ‘what Blair would have done?’ This speaks volumes of the PM’s role as an international statesman and the impact he had on the formation of (White House and, in turn, western) policy for a decade.

David Cameron is an admirer of Blair (as Bozier reminds readers on 16 October), and infamously once described himself as “the heir to Blair.” Yet it is not only the latter whom should be proud of the former for taking charge of the intervention in Libya in 2011; most, if not all, Brits should be since – much like the occupant of Number 10 12 years earlier – a PM looked more assertive than an C-in-C and was a more articulate and convincing proponent of western action than American leaders.

Not for the first time in recent American history, the incumbent refused to take the lead in toppling a tyrant whom tormented his people. And, not for the time in recent British history, Her Majesty’s Government stepped in to fill the breach. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal response to the Arab Spring and subsequent assault on rebels appalled cable viewers the world over, Obama included, but he was reluctant to act for fear of antagonizing the Muslim world. Cameron, on the other hand, set the tone of the response with Blair-style shuttle diplomacy and instructed the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to draw up plans for a no-fly zone. A similar move was initiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy days earlier and diplomats on either side of the English Channel were quick to come up with a U.N.S.C.R to authorize a no-fly zone, notwithstanding skepticism across the Atlantic from where U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, criticized ‘loose talk’.

The quick passage of U.N.S.C.R 1973 underlined the burden of leadership passing from an inert C-in-C to an increasingly influential PM. More importantly, though, it undergirded just how persuasive Cameron was in persuading the U.S. to back a no-fly zone, a course of action which Obama dithered over and was reluctant to view as anything other than a contingency measure, but one which his Administration fully supported when asked to vote upon.

While much has happened in Anglo-American relations these past eighteen months, the last month in particular – such as Attorney General Eric Holder formally complaining to Britain over Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision to block the extradition of computer hacker Gary McKinnon;  a prospective merger (between BAE Systems and the Franco-German company EADS) which could have weakened defense cooperation between London and Washington; clashes over the implementation of the controversial secret courts law and Britain being put “on probation” by America’s intelligence-gathering community; and an opinion piece by a group of UK defense chiefs reaffirming the ‘open concern in the United States Congress over British disarmament’ – Cameron continues to have influence with the White House, much like Blair, who was able to counsel Clinton and Bush at key moments in international affairs, and thus confident enough to actually snub Obama.

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