American Enterprise Online
June 1, 2005
Alan W. Dowd
In a mocking echo of the “Deck of Death” that the US military used to track down Saddam Hussein’s regime leftovers after the liberation of Iraq, a March 2004 cover of The Economist laid out four “ace cards”: Britain’s Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard, America’s George W. Bush and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar. The freshly ousted Aznar had a red X emblazoned across his face. The stark, chilling headline asked, “One down, three to go?”
At the time, it was perhaps a fair question. Recall that Spain had just been bombed and bullied into making a separate peace with terror. As Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute worried at the time, “the most important lesson to be learned from Spain is the most depressing and the one most likely to be assimilated by the terrorist networks the world over: in a Western democracy, terrorism, if massive enough, pays.”
Bush was floundering in the polls and in Iraq. Indeed, there was no light for Iraqis or Americans at the end of the tunnel, only beheadings and butchery and bombings. In the West, the critics and naysayers warned that Iraq could not handle a transfer of sovereignty (scheduled for June 2004), let alone a nationwide election (scheduled for January 2005). They said the same about elections in Afghanistan (scheduled for October 2004). In the Middle East, the critics and naysayers warned that Washington would break its promises and never trust the Iraqi people with Iraq, or the Afghan people with Afghanistan.
Yet fourteen months later, the answer to The Economist’s question is resounding, emphatic and undisputable. Howard began the roll with an easy win in October 2004. Bush followed in November 2004. Blair finished out the flush with an unprecedented reelection in May 2005. The defeat of Aznar’s hawkish party proved to be something sadly unique to Spain. So far, other Western electorates have not shrunk from the battle. (Indeed, many of us predicted that in their first national election after 9/11 Americans would not react like Spaniards did after 3/11.)
Nor was the political success limited to the core of the Western war coalition: Anti-terror, pro-freedom forces scored victories in Afghanistan in October 2004, in proto-Palestine in late 2004, in Iraq in early 2005, and in Lebanon in spring 2005. Fouad Ajami has aptly called this period “the autumn of autocrats.”
And now, something interesting and just as unexpected has begun to happen to two of the main obstacles to common cause in Iraq: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s party was trounced in regional elections in May, prompting him to seek permission to hold federal elections a year earlier and likely portending the beginning of the end of his chancellorship. Then, just this week, the French people soundly defeated a referendum on ratifying the European Union constitution, delivering a humiliating defeat to French President Jacques Chirac.
Neither result was connected to Iraq or the wider war on terror, of course. Nor will the end of the Chirac-Schroeder duet change what the German and French people think about America or its current president. But the consequences of Schroeder and Chirac’s eclipse could very well have a salutary impact on the transatlantic alliance—and on what certain pieces of that alliance are trying to achieve in the Middle East: Just as the Bush administration is changing how it explains its policies, perhaps new leaders in Paris and Berlin will adjust how they speak to and about their allies in Washington and London, Prague and Warsaw, Baghdad and Kabul.
However, Chirac and Schroeder are not the only two European leaders that seem to be nearing the end of their service. Despite his unprecedented third election victory, Blair’s days as prime minister appear to be numbered. When he steps aside, Blair will likely be replaced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who embodies and embraces more of “Old Labour” than Blair’s “New Labour.”
Could such a transition of power impact the US-UK partnership, the very lynchpin of the Western war effort? Perhaps. After all, Blair’s New Labour program represented a decidedly warmer relationship with Washington than that of previous Labour governments and previous Labour leaders. Recall that two of the more distant and detached episodes in the US-UK alliance have come during Labour governments.
As historian Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty-Year Wound, after communist forces lunged into Korea’s southern half in June 1950, “Washington expected Britain, its strongest and most globally deployed partner, to be on the front lines.” Yet it wasn’t until the end of July, “after a month of slaughter” and harsh diplomatic messages from Washington to London, that Prime Minister Clement Attlee even offered to send troops. Then, in late 1950, after 11,000 allied casualties in the span of five months, President Harry Truman confirmed publicly that atomic weapons were an option to stop the communist onslaught. In response to Truman’s comments, Attlee raced to Washington and openly challenged Truman on the atomic threat, arguably undermining Truman’s leverage in using the A-bomb not as a military tool but as a diplomatic and negotiating tool.
During Vietnam, it was another Labour PM, Harold Wilson, who would frustrate the transatlantic partnership. The BBC recalls, in its exquisitely British way, how “all was not so rosy between the two nations in the era of Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilson resisted sending British troops to Vietnam and the special relationship cooled for 15 years.” In fact, Leebaert writes that Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, “fumed over Britain’s refusal to send even a token battalion to Vietnam, growling that the next time the United States would leave that supposedly special ally to defend the white cliffs of Dover alone.”
Of course there are exceptions. From Kosovo to 9/11 to Iraq, Labour’s Blair has been a stalwart supporter of the special relationship—at great political risk to himself. And it pays to recall that two conservatives—Dwight Eisenhower on this side of the Atlantic and Anthony Eden on the other—were bitterly divided over Suez.
Yet the special relationship has endured through all the strains and doom-saying and challenges. As Bush observed just days after September 11, “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.” If (when?) there is a Brown government, the odds are that it will continue to be America’s closest friend.
Likewise, the Western democracies have endured through a season of political and military testing. Even so, there are more tests yet to come.