It’s old news by now. The Cameron government has joined the Obama administration in its air campaign against the self-declared Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, US-led forces are effectively acting on the side of the Assad regime. The attacks, in turn, have united the affiliates of al-Qaeda with the ISIS forces that they had broken with. Meanwhile, the chaos in Iraq has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran into a coalition with the US and her European allies. It’s unclear what the mission hopes to achieve. Pointing to the ISIS advance in Kobane, military analysts are already calling it a failure.
Where the UK stands in all of this is all too clear. Britain is on the side of the Americans. What better setting than Iraq? The US and the UK have invaded twice already. On top of that, there is the sanctions regime responsible for the deaths of maybe as many as a million people. First it was Major, and then it was Blair. It seems logical that Cameron wants to finish the job. Actually, there’s more going on here than that. When David Cameron visited Washington in 2012 he proclaimed to the audience:
I believe that we can be sure that in 50 years’ time, an American President and a British Prime Minister will stand on this very spot, just as we do now; they will stand here, as we do, for freedom and for enterprise: our two countries – the united states of liberty and enterprise.
These were the words of a statesman looking for words to overcompensate. As Dean Acheson once put it “Britain is our lieutenant, the fashionable word is ‘partner’.” The British prefer to hear the fashionable word. It softens the loss of empire, the mediocrity of post-war life, and all the while the realists of Washington hold the keys to power. This was best typified by the scene at the NATO summit in September, where David Cameron extended his hand to a delegate, only for President Obama to beat him to it. Cameron was left with his hand out waiting, while the most powerful man on earth sidelined him.
The Spoils of Britannia
History’s cunning is on full show in Mesopotamia. After all it was the British, who wrenched Iraq from the Ottoman Empire, amalgamating Kurdish, Shi’ite, and Sunni populations into one state. Syria was given to the French, who then cut out Lebanon, with Britain holding onto Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. The borders were very often defined out of strategic interests. Kuwait was cut out of Iraq to prevent the country from having too much of a coastline. The historic claim to Kuwait would resurface in 1990, as Saddam Hussein annexed the country expecting the US to support him.
The Kurds were not so happy with this situation. Having fought on the side of the British, the Kurdish leadership expected a state of their own in return. Instead the Kurds were left predominantly dislocated between French Syria, British Iraq, and the old imperial power Turkey. When Iraq’s Kurds rebelled, it was Winston Churchill who advocated the use of poison gas against the ‘barbarian’ hordes. The British attempted to establish a Hashemite monarchy in Iraq only to watch from afar as it fell apart, by which time the United States had superseded Britain as the leading imperial power in the world.
The United States largely inherited its position in the Middle East from the British Empire. The Roosevelt administration was quick to establish ties to the Saudi royal family – a relationship which still stands as the longest alliance the US has in the region – before taking on Israel as a bastion of American influence in the region. When Egypt became an independent state under General Nasser it was President Eisenhower who opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The failure of the attempt by the British government to steal back the Suez Canal signalled that the Empire was well and truly dead.
The United States had exerted great military strength in the Second World War and came out of it with the greatest gains. Half of the world’s wealth was concentrated in the US by the time that the conflict had come to an end. There was little difficulty in financing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and in securing prosperity in the States for the future. The New Deal had developed a modest social democratic compact (by comparative standards), which would be maintained and expanded until the Seventies. Not only was the US triumphant, it had immense reserves of economic and diplomatic power with the military capability to back it up.
A Tired Island
The social democratic consensus was born in the defeat of Nazi Germany, the expansion of the Soviet model into Eastern Europe, and the beginning of the end for old school colonialism. The Labour government established the welfare state and ultimately gave up India – the jewel in the crown – only to sign up to NATO and keep the USAF bases which remain in Britain to this day. In decades to come, the UK would support the US in its wars in Indochina. When London was looking for its own nuclear arsenal, Washington extended the US nuclear command system to the UK. Even today, English hawks hold ‘our deterrent’ in a particularly warm place.
There were differences, of course. The US was insistent upon Indian independence, just as it would later support Egypt’s independence from Britain. When the Argentine junta reclaimed the Falklands, the Thatcher government was astounded to find the Reaganites unwilling to support the UK in its mission to hold onto the islands, and maintain some claim to its past as a world power. The tables were turned when the US attacked Grenada and overthrew the regime there. Once again, the Iron Lady was displeased with her American compatriots, as they rampaged through a commonwealth country. This only confirmed that Britain was not what it once was.
Not only does the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK appeal to the nostalgia for imperial glory. It chimes well with the view of Britain as distinctly non-European. After all, Great Britain did not follow the standard route of capitalist development, as it has managed to hold onto its monarchy, aristocracy, and its state church, all the while rapidly moving from feudalism to capitalism. Unlike its equivalents in continental Europe, the English revolution did not sweep away the archaic institutions of the past. The country is one of the few in the world without a constitution – something it shares with Israel and Saudi Arabia – relying instead on an increasingly stale substance of tradition.
By contrast, the United States is the only country in the world to be a capitalist society from its very foundation. The Founding Fathers displayed all of the tropes and vitality of classical liberalism, not to mention its hypocrisy on the questions of indigenous peoples, slavery, and women. Even farther from the old world of kingdoms, the thirteen colonies broke the limitations set by the Hanoverians, and eventually devoured the lands claimed by the French and the Spanish. The mother country watched as its former appendage grew into a giant towering over the world.
The English burden
It wasn’t that long ago an indignant Paddy Ashdown was decrying the British Parliament for heading towards ‘isolationism’. Ashdown’s fury came in the wake of the parliamentary vote on Syria, in supper for an American initiative to launch punitive strikes against Assad’s forces. Both Labour and the Conservatives lost their first motions. Effectively, the vote was split and cancelled out the support for war in the opposition. This led to the defeat of the pro-war motion on the government’s side. Cameron had to pledge not to go into Syria. All of this is barely a year ago, and yet the UK is now bombing Iraq. So much for Britain’s newfound isolationism.
Now the current bombing campaign looks more like action in the absence of policy. The only way to defeat ISIS is to strangle it in Syria, which can only be done with a de facto alliance with the Assad regime. The UK long lost its imperial outposts, only to become a mercenary state to its former offspring. Yet the country’s political echelon remains convinced of its ‘special relationship’ with the US. Living vicariously through a much larger and more vivacious country, little England can pretend it still rules the waves. All the while, neither America nor Britannia looks able to prevent Iraq from collapsing.
Photographs courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence, Joint Multinational Task Force, and NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. Published under a Creative Commons license.