abdelbaset al megrahi, abraham lincoln, afghanistan, alex salmond, anglo-american relations, ass kicking, barack obama, bp, british petroleum, civil war, cold war, david cameron, deepwater horizon, falklands, franklin delano roosevelt, gordon brown, helmand, hillary clinton, iraq, iron curtain, kenny macaskill, lockerbie bomber, mau mau rebellion, muammar gaddafi, nato, russia, special relationship, tony hayward, winston churchill, world war i, world war ii
I first considered writing a post about the Anglo-American “Special Relationship” several months ago, but put it off because I thought there wouldn’t be enough interest. There jolly-well is now. On 20 April 2010, an explosion happened on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing catastrophic oil leak brought to the surface an unprecedented environmental disaster, but it also exposed tension lurking beneath the United States’ relationship with Britain, its most important ally.
The sins of BP, formerly (and suddenly anew) called British Petroleum, are just one piece of the puzzle. Britain is deeply interlocked in our global struggle against terrorism. There’s a good reason: the two of us have the most experience fighting global wars over the last two centuries. But our partnership is strained there, too. The last three months have been a litany of public squabbling of a petty but extremely high-stakes nature. History, dollars, and most importantly, lives are at stake.
The Wheelchair and the Cigar
Our alliance with Britain has a long history. After we got over the whole Revolutionary War thing, that is. You might loosely date it from the end of the American Civil War (British responses to the Civil War ranged from mild amusement to profiteering, and the odd British-built Confederate warship). A turning point came in 1901 when we signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which allowed the United States to begin building the Panama Canal. It was an acknowledgment that Britain’s navy was overcommitted in the Pacific, and that checking the rise of Germany meant that Britain needed allies to maintain its global hegemony.
The World Wars are the most famous chapter in the Anglo-American relationship, but at the time it was not so simple. Despite our victorious cooperation in World War I, the League of Nations fiasco soured the mood. The British made big investments, material and ideological, in Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild, hoping it would carry the torch of the imperial Commonwealth model they had pioneered. When Congress voted against joining the League in 1919, bitterness and bewilderment ensued. World War II would fix all that, though.
Winston Churchill, who had an American mom, thought highly of the United States. He also waged a tireless campaign to convince Roosevelt that it was actually in the Americans’ interests as a world power to enter the largest and most highly-staked conflict in history, rather than sit back and sell things to the belligerents. Churchill and Roosevelt were incredibly tight – their visits during the war were quite chummy to say the least. It was Winston who first used the term “special relationship” in 1945, when talking about trusteeship of atomic weapons.
As the twentieth century wore on, our specialness would be cemented by the Cold War. Anglo-American cooperation in NATO to check the USSR and our mutual support for the United Nations, within which we peacefully battled the Soviets, were the key strategic pillars of the bipolar Cold War world. It was Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” address, the same in which he coined the term “Iron Curtain,” that he further expounded on the Special Relationship:
Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples …a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.
The SR continued through the Cold War years and reached another climax during the Reagan-Thatcher axis which (arguably) finally put the Russians to the sword via aggressive cooperative rearmament. Unlike many of their predecessors, Thatcher and Reagan also enjoyed ideological lock-step in domestic matters, engaging heavily in financial deregulation, privatization, and “Something D-O-O Economics.”
The Obama family – we’re not in Kansas anymore
To really get a sense of the feeling between the two countries, though, you have to look beyond speeches and quotes and official statements, which are going to usually say the same, generally positive, stuff. To get an idea of Obama’s attitude toward our monarchist cousins, you might read his 2008 (pre-election) quote “We have a chance to recalibrate the relationship and for the United Kingdom to work with America as a full partner,” and think he has fairly pro-British sentiments. Not so fast. Time for some history.
Between 1952 and 1960, British East Africa, now known as Kenya, staged an uprising against its British colonial masters that resulted in Kenyan independence in a broader movement of African anti-colonialism. But not without significant loss of life and some pretty brutal cases of torture. Though both sides were involved, the British were especially egregious in their “screening” of Mau Mau rebels for information. We’re talking stuff that makes Guantanamo look tame. One of the victims was some guy named Hussein Onyango Obama. The President’s grandfather. The Prime Minister at the time? Some guy named Winston Churchill.
Now, Obama is a pretty smart, level-headed guy. I don’t want to create an image of a privately seething Anglophobe here. But is the above irrelevant? Realistically, it can’t be. Perhaps that is why, almost immediately after taking office, Obama removed an incredibly valuable bust of Churchill, loaned by the British to Bush II, from the Oval Office and sent it to the UK ambassador’s residence. The spot is now occupied by Honest Abe Lincoln (of Lincoln Log fame). This caused outrage among the British, and not without cause. For all his drawbacks, we’re talking about possibly the most important politician of the twentieth century; the guy who may have saved Western liberalism by continuously being right about zee Germans and building the coalitions necessary to keep them from taking over the world. The British Empire was no angel, but let’s just say you’d choose it over the Imperial or Third Reichs. It’s pretty clear that Obama’s bust-shuffling wasn’t business, it was personal.
Obama’s relationship with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was fairly cool. Recognizing that Obama’s taste in symbolic gifts was slightly different than that of his predecessor, Brown brought on a visit a pen holder made from the wood of the 19th-century vessel HMS Gannet, which patrolled the Mediterranean busting up the slave-trade, which Britain criminalized in 1807 (followed by slavery in general in 1833). Obama’s reciprocal gift? 25 DVDs. Not joking. I hope Brown was a Star Wars fan. Upon closer examination, it seems that in addition to further gifts for Sasha and Malia, Brown also brought a signed first edition of a seven-volume biography of Churchill. Maybe that was a bad idea.
Redcoats. With black trim.
Things haven’t exactly gotten rosier since. There have been numerous foreign policy gaffes, such as conflicting stances over whether to talk to Hamas and Hezbollah (I might add that we’re both reaping what we’ve sown with the stupid “no-talking” act), and Hillary Clinton supporting Argentina in its quarrel with the British over the Falklands (I might add again that we’re reaping what we’ve sown here as well by letting Hillary be Secretary of State, I blogged about the Falklands incident here).
The British public has been cooling toward the United States for some time now. Tony Blair, a popular Prime Minister whose ten-year reign is, apart from Thatcher, the longest since the Marquess of Salisbury, gradually morphed into a demon by the time he left office because of his support for Bush II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, the British have soured to the idea of doing the Americans’ bidding all over the world, never mind that we did the same for them for most of the twentieth century. Groups ranging from the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to my own Church of England have suggested that the Special Relationship may be both illusory and unhelpful in present times.
Then, the Scots decided to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from prison and let him return to his native Libya because he was believed to have terminal cancer. In 1988, a Pan-Am flight from Heathrow to JFK was destroyed by a bomb, killing all 259, mostly American, passengers and 11 at the site of the crash in Lockerbie, Scotland. Al-Megrahi, an alleged Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life in prison. In August 2009, with al-Megrahi supposedly on the brink of death from prostate cancer, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill approved his release from prison on compassionate grounds. He returned to Libya and was greeted by a celebratory crowd and the son of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has an extensive and public record of funding terrorism. Al-Megrahi remains very much alive. We’ll return to this later.
And then that oil thing happened. After the spill, Obama was reportedly looking for “an ass to kick,” and it was inevitably going to be a British ass. Despite the fact that it renamed itself “BP” in 2001 after some mergers with American companies, administration officials have made a point to call it “British Petroleum” just to explicitly specify their ass-kicking target. Good thing no-one remembers its original name, Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The anti-British rhetoric got so high in the wake of the BP spill that John Napier, CEO of British insurance giant RSA, wrote this open letter to Obama chastising him for being vindictively Anglophobic. Ouch.
Recently, the two problems merged into a single giant Anglo-American shitstorm. Speculation has been rife for a year now that something more sinister was behind the Scots’ seemingly ridiculous decision to release al-Megrahi. Theories ranged from a simple desire to cause trouble for London on the part of Scotland’s ruling SNP nationalists, to an under-the-table deal trading the prisoner for Libyan oil. Since the spill, a popular accusation is that beleaguered BP CEO Tony Hayward presided over an extraordinary Faustian bargain with terror for oil, with the results appearing on Louisianan shores. Something like that.
When Cameron was in Egypt-Land
While the BP-Lockerbie connection is sensationalist, it hasn’t stopped American politicians from calling for blood during new Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Washington a week ago. The most troubling aspect of these outcries is that they demonstrate that American politicians apparently don’t understand the difference between Scotland and the United Kingdom. While Cameron and his predecessors in Brown’s cabinet represent the United Kingdom of which Scotland is a member, and BP lobbied Brown for prisoner transfer to ease pressure on their business, the decision to release al-Megrahi was the Scottish government’s alone. Scotland has had its own, independent legal system for awhile now. And by awhile, I mean since the 1707 Act of Union. Not to mention that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is a nationalist and his people are rarely on the same page politically with the UK government in London. But hey, these are just details! It’s not like we should expect our elected officials to understand the political system of our most important ally or anything, right?
As a case in point, David Cameron, a Conservative who is more inclined to talk tough on matters of terrorism and national security, isn’t particularly happy with the release of al-Megrahi either, as he noted during his visit with Obama, “he should have died in jail.” Still, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were hoping to compel members of the UK and Scottish governments to testify about Lockerbie and BP in the US. They were unsurprisingly declined, because of a little thing called “state sovereignty” that makes members of one government being summoned to the proceedings of another for questioning and chastisement ridiculous.
Meanwhile Tony Hayward, who was responsible for the fault in the subtitles, has been sacked. It’s rumored that he could reappear in Russia. Cameron’s visit with Obama was, on the whole, positive. The two seemed to be on the same page about Afghanistan, and the timetable of troop withdrawal. No matter his feelings about the Special Relationship, Obama must realize that he needs it to get reelected in 2012. Whether it’s fair or not, Afghanistan became “his war” when he rightly committed to finishing what we started there, and Britain still has over 9,000 troops holding the crucial Helmand province. Mounting troop casualties have led to extreme pressure on the UK government to withdraw from Afghanistan, which would be a disaster for NATO military operations there. As the recent Wikileaks scandal shows, the war in Afghanistan is not going well and could end up defining Obama’s presidency, for better or worse.
David Cameron left Washington for India, and in addition to a new $1.1bn deal with the Indians expressed the desire to begin a new “special relationship” with them. Uh-oh. India’s huge economic growth and historically close relationship with its former colonial master makes the notion of a new Anglo-Indian Special Relationship viable. Nevertheless, Churchill bust or no Churchill bust, the Anglo-American Special Relationship is still vital to world order as we know it, and neither of us can afford to let it lapse.