'Special relationship'/sp/has its ups and downs


TONY BLAIR'S continual and very forceful defense of President Bush's intention to make war on Iraq, his dismissal of the opposition to it in Europe as "straightforward anti-Americanism," suggests that the so-called "special relationship" - that historical coincidence of policy and world view shared by the United States and Britain - is alive, if not entirely well.

Mr. Blair's promise to provide evidence against Saddam Hussein damning enough to erase all doubt about the rightness of Mr. Bush's policy gives everybody something to look forward to. But it also raises a question:

Why isn't Mr. Bush doing this?

And despite his passionate commitment to the antiterrorist "partnership" with America, it is not at all certain the British prime minister will stick it out.

Important members of his own Labor Party, Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament, oppose the Bush policy. So do most of Labor's midlevel leadership cadres throughout the United Kingdom.

This is unsurprising. Why? Because most people in Britain are against the idea of one country attacking another without provocation or solid evidence of planned aggression. It is thought a bad precedent to set in international relations. It recalls to the European mind the predatory dictatorships of the 1930s.

For Mr. Bush's sake, the evidence will have to be good. For if Mr. Blair departs, the president will be left lonelier than he ever expected to be since he fell in thrall of "regime change."

Having France and Germany, the European Union, every Arab state that matters, Russia, China, not to mention an influential fragment of the Republican Party, so outspokenly opposed to the Iraq policy is one thing. Having the country's most overt ally evince similar resistance - well, that's something else. It leaves no one to pass the ammunition.

The special relationship is not so deep or venerable as many believe it to be.

It was forged during World War II by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fight against the Nazis.

It was deepened during the Cold War by the sharing of nuclear technologies, strategies and intelligence information.

It grew almost torrid during the administrations of Margaret Thatcher in London and Ronald Reagan in Washington.

It has been cherished more by Republicans in this country and Conservatives in Britain than by their political opponents. The Labor Party, with its socialist traditions, has never warmed to it the way the Tories did. For which reason Mr. Blair is not likely to run long against the opinion that is jelling within his party and beyond. He is not known to be firm in his convictions, rather a politician who makes more promises than he keeps.

Nor has the special relationship been an uninterrupted force for comity between the two countries entwined in it.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, the Conservative prime minister, John Major, dispatched two political agents to the United States to work for President Bush's campaign against the Democrat, Bill Clinton. He also opened the confidential files of the Home Office to Republican operatives rooting around for something incriminating on Mr. Clinton from his days at Oxford University.

This was viewed as blatant meddling in the American political process, especially by Mr. Clinton, who snubbed Mr. Major when he visited the United States after the election.

During World War II, the relationship forged between Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt was more than merely useful to Britain: It may have rescued the kingdom. The continuation of it during the Cold War may also have served British purposes, but not everyone agrees that it did.

The former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath doubted its value, even its existence. In a House of Commons debate over a decade ago on Britain's role in Europe, he was asked by a colleague "to reaffirm his belief in the special relationship that we have with the United States."

His reply was unexpected, even shocking for his interlocutor. There is "no such thing," he said. "To take that view is to show no understanding of international relations."

This supposed affinity between the United States and Britain, and the British penchant for flaunting it at every turn, too often had the effect of setting Britain apart from the rest of Europe, said Mr. Heath, and was the root cause of much of Britain's problems in the European community.

Actually, from the historical standpoint, the special relationship was, if anything, a most unexpected development. Why? Because few former colonies have been so brusquely treated by the imperial powers that gave birth to them as the United States was by its "mother."

During America's first 90 years, Britain tried on three occasions to destroy or subvert the young democracy: in the Revolution; during the War of 1812, when British troops burned the capitol; and in the Civil War, when Britain aided the Confederacy.

Pretty special, that.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor for The Sun.

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