Now it’s the ‘special needs’ relationship

The furore over the release of al-Megrahi shows how the US-UK alliance has lost its sheen since the joint crusade against Libya in the 1980s.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

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It is ironic that the US-UK ‘special relationship’ should be exposed as a sham through the furore over the release of Libyan Abdel-baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. After all, it was Britain’s role in the US air-strikes on the Libyan capital Tripoli in 1986 that publicly consolidated the special relationship anew.

Then, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan showed the world that they stood together against the bogeyman Colonel Gaddafi. Now, as Gaddafi’s embrace of the released al-Megrahi causes a storm of American protests and the Obama administration turns against the silent, invisible prime minister Gordon Brown, it appears that the Colonel has had his revenge. Yet Gaddafi has not had to bomb any planes or launch any wars to score this diplomatic coup. All he had to do was hug his returning countryman, thank Brown, then stand back and watch the weak-kneed Western alliance crumble of its own accord.

That it should be the UK government that damages the special relationship through its display of impotence also shows how lost and out of control British foreign policy has become. Because since the US emerged from the Second World War as the global superpower, that special relationship has always been far more ‘special’ to Whitehall than to Washington. And the more the old empire’s global influence has declined over the past 60 years, the more it has clung to Uncle Sam’s coat-tails on the world stage.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher clearly saw close relations with the Reagan administration as Britain’s best ticket to remain at the top table. Thatcher faced down fierce opposition and hitched her wagon firmly to President Reagan’s launch of the Second Cold War with the Soviet Union by allowing the US to site nuclear Cruise missiles in the UK. Even in the Eighties, however, the US authorities took a far more ambivalent view of exactly how special the relationship was, equivocating for some time before finally siding with Thatcher against Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982.

As part of his Second Cold War campaign to reassert US authority and cure America’s ‘Vietnam syndrome’, Reagan pursued the familiar tactic of setting up weak Third World regimes as ‘pro-Soviet’ bogeymen. This even caused some tension with Thatcher’s government in 1983, when US forces invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada – a member of the Commonwealth – on the flimsy pretext that Cubans building an airport there were a military threat to the US. The arch-militarist prime minister wrote to the president complaining that: ‘This action will be seen as intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime’ – not a consideration that ever weighed too heavily with her intervention-happy New Labour successors.

When Reagan targeted Gaddafi’s Libya in 1986, however, using as his pretext a bomb at a Berlin disco frequented by US soldiers, Thatcher put the special relationship before all other considerations. While the international community condemned the US air-strikes, Thatcher backed them loud and clear as a defence of the free world against the threat of terrorism and Communism. While other European nations refused the US airforce permission even to cross their airspace, the Conservative government allowed the F-111 fighter bombers to take off from British airbases. When the BBC News questioned the causes and consequences of the US attacks on Tripoli, Tory party chairman Norman Tebbit launched a crusade against BBC ‘bias’. Thatcher and her successor as Tory PM, John Major, also backed President George HW Bush before and during the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990-1, really the last time the Western allies were able successfully to set up a Third World stooge against whom to demonstrate their authority.

In the past two decades, however, US power has seriously waned and Britain’s has all but disappeared. The loss of American influence in the Middle East has been brought to a head by the Iraq debacle and the rise of Iran. The UK is now a bit-part player in the great diplomatic games. As I observed during the recent crisis around the presidential elections in Iran, Britain had been singled out for criticism by the Iranian regime because of its vulnerability, not its strength. Brown and Co are even less capable of organising a ‘coup’ in Iran today than of winning an election in Britain.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the over-arching ideology of anti-Communism that had helped to hold the Western alliance together for so long. The amorphous ‘war on terror’ has proved a poor substitute. Now the row over the release of al-Megrahi has exposed the myth of the special relationship for all to see. As Frank Furedi argued yesterday on spiked, the British government’s inability to act or even speak on such a major diplomatic issue has shown up its lack of leadership or authority and punctured any remaining illusions about its role in the world, where it has been caught posing in a uniform that is far too big for it (See Al-Megrahi and the crisis of political leadership). The US authorities have been infuriated by their ally’s inability to support the Obama administration’s hard line on al-Megrahi. After all, if the US cannot even rely on Britain to back up a propaganda crusade against those deemed terrorists and tyrants, what use is any special relationship to Washington?

No doubt Obama and Brown will manage some sort of diplomatic patch-up job at the forthcoming G20 summit, even though there are further tensions ahead over, for example, an impoverished UK’s ability to keep punching above its weight in the war in Afghanistan. But they cannot turn back the clock or hide the way that the world has changed. The US administration is no longer capable of setting up and knocking down a little bogeyman such as Gaddafi to make itself look powerful – while the UK government is so pathetic that it can be accused of going cap-in-hand to the Libyan ruler for oil and favours.

Instead, the latest carry-on with Libya suggests that a pale ghost of a bogeyman from the past can now come back to haunt the Western alliance, and a hate figure who once united them can split them asunder without even really trying.

If the US-UK relationship is ‘special’ today, it is only in the sense that a struggling child can be said to have special needs. America has lost its iron global grip and the unquestioned authority to hold alliances in place. Britain however has lost much more – its place in the world, its government, and its voice.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that the British government’s mismanagement of the al-Megrahi affair showed its lack of political and moral authority. Rob Lyons noted that international politics always trumped the truth over Lockerbie. Brendan O’Neill attacked the political cowardice of Gordon Brown. Frank Furedi described how the political crisis behind the War on Terror and described how Europe’s political elites are lost for words. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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