BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES: The “Essential Relationship” and Lost Wars

What is the point of David Cameron’s visit to Washington? Is there any point to it at all? The most banal explanation might be that it is reward for the razzamatazz and royal junketing  that so bedazzled Barack and Michele Obama on their visit to London in 2010. In return, the prime minister, despite not being a head of state, received the grandest welcome in Washington accorded any leader this year: a ride in Air Force One, a 19 gun salute, an official reception on the south lawn of the White House and a state banquet. Cameron must have felt he had upstaged Tony Blair on his famous visits to G.W. Bush. This visit, if we are to believe the official propaganda accompanying it, was to further consolidate (yet again) what is now referred to as the “essential relationship.”  

In an op ed for the Washington Post on 13 March, the two leaders treated those who could be bothered to read it to their thoughts on the subject.  And, as always when the “special” or “essential” relationship comes up, they started with World War II. Anyone anticipating the string of platitudes, half-truths and untruths that frequently passes for serious thought on this subject, would have found themselves on familiar ground. Nevertheless, it is still astonishing that such tendentious drivel can find its way into print. In an opening turn of phrase that may be intended subliminally to recall Lincoln at Gettysburg, we are told that “Seven decades ago, as our forces began to turn the tide of World War II, Prime Minister Churchill traveled to Washington to coordinate our joint efforts.” In what follows the impression is created that World War II was won by the United States and Great Britain, and that the alliance between the two countries is the foundation upon which “the institutions that undergird international peace and security” rest. “We count on each other”, and, we are told, “the world counts on our alliance.” Grandiose, heroic stuff!  Tedious though it is to have to do so because the historical facts are so well known, these claims must be subjected to elementary scrutiny.

If we take the claims about what “our forces” were doing seven decades ago literally, we are talking about March 1942. Far from having begun to “turn the tide of war” the US and Britain faced serious reverses in the Pacific and the far-east and there wasn’t a single US soldier yet in Europe or North Africa. The biggest reversal the Axis powers suffered was at the hands of the Red Army, who, in December 1941 stopped the Wehrmacht’s advance before Moscow – the first serious set-back for the Nazis. And, in January 1942 the first declaration of the newly proclaimed “United Nations” was issued on behalf of 26 national signatories led by the U.S., the U.K and the USSR. Despite the onset of hostilities following Japanese aggression in the Pacific, during 1942 it was clearly recognized by all the combatants that by far the greatest contribution to securing the eventual defeat of the Axis powers was the titanic struggle being waged by the Soviet Union. It is true that Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany from June 1940 to June 1941. If first Britain and then the Soviet Union (June-December 1941) had not survived the blitzkrieg assaults against them, the outcome of World War II would have been very different. And, if we take October 1942 - February 1943 as a more realistic date for “our forces” turning the tide against the Axis, then two decisive battles stand out: El Alamein (October ’42) and Stalingrad (February 43). In terms of the strategic balance of power, Stalingrad was by far the more important. Churchill and Roosevelt were outstanding war leaders. They did not always see eye-to-eye, particularly over what Roosevelt regarded, not without reason, as Churchill’s determination to preserve the British Empire. They both recognized Stalin as an outstanding war leader, and often Roosevelt seemed more sympathetic to Stalin than he did to Churchill. This was not lost on the later cold warriors in the United States, who accused him of selling out to Stalin at Yalta.  

In 1942 the western allies assured their Soviet ally that they would open a second front in Europe that year. It didn’t happen. It was then promised for 1943, but again postponed. Finally the second front was opened on D.Day, June 6 1944, which meant that the Soviet Union had faced the full force of Germany’s heaviest divisions for three years without respite, at a cost, by the end of hostilities in May 1945, of 25 million dead. “Our Soviet ally” too played a not insignificant part in securing the victory over Nazi Germany, though more often than not this is conveniently forgotten.

The perpetuation of myths about World War II has since about 1947 rested on the pretence  that the war against Nazism was won by the British and the Americans. Almost every film about that war has, in one way or another, contributed to the myth. Accordingly, the French and the Italians were liberated by the Anglo-Americans and the peoples of Eastern Europe were enslaved by the Russians. World War II saw the birth of the convenient myth of the “special relationship”, or an “essential relationship” between Britain and the United States. This is a pretence that both sides find it convenient to preserve. Prior to the war Britain was able, despite its waning economic power and its increasingly tenuous hold over the peoples of its far-flung empire, to maintain the claim to be a “great power.” The loss of its empire after 1945 reduced Britain to the status of a second-rate European state dependent, like the rest of Western Europe, on the USA for Marshall Aid. But delusions of imperial grandeur die hard. The post-war Labour government soon opted to side with the USA against Soviet Russia in the developing “cold war”. The claim to world power status as its empire broke up in the rising tide of colonial independence could be maintained by acquiring the atomic bomb. France later took the same decision for similar reasons.

The pretence of an “essential relationship” with the USA has enabled the British ruling classes to distance themselves from the countries of continental Europe. The right wing hostility to the E.U. is coupled with a sentimental Atlanticism. Admiration of the USA as a world super-power, peddled constantly in the Tory press, is also a form of nostalgia for the lost “English-speaking empire”. It is obvious that in this relationship – which is not a partnership - the UK is the subordinate member. In their article Obama and Cameron write: “As leading economies, we’re coordinating with our G8 and G20 partners to put our people back to work.” In the ranking of leading world economies based on GDP, the UK has just been displaced from sixth place by Brazil. The UK is still in recession; there is no economic recovery. In spite of the crisis in the Eurozone, both Germany and France rank above the UK among leading world economies. Though it is seldom stated so bluntly, the value to the U.S. of the “essential relationship” is that Britain’s political leaders can almost always be relied upon to support the U.S in whatever military action its leaders choose to take. Thus, in recent times, Blair stood “shoulder to shoulder” with G.W. Bush in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The consequences of both invasions have been disastrous.

Following 9/11 GW Bush, supported by Blair, launched “the war on terror”. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken the lives of countless thousands – mainly Afghanis and Iraqis. In Iraq the result has been to replace a tyrannical regime with an unstable, dysfunctional one, subservient to western corporations and oil companies and riven by tribal and religious sectarianism.

Afghanistan is proving even more intractable than Iraq. Nearly 200 years of experience of foreign colonial interventions seem to have taught the British, US and other Nato powers nothing. The 11 year long Soviet occupation might have provided a few lessons for anyone interested in the recent history of the place, but it seems that no-one was interested in studying it. Obama and Cameron write blithely: “As the largest contributors to the international mission in Afghanistan, we’re proud of the progress our troops have made but, as recent days remind us, this remains a difficult mission. We honour the profound sacrifices of our forces and in their name we will carry on the mission.” Of what do recent days remind them?

A week ago six British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province. Their deaths were treated as a national tragedy. There was a packed memorial service for them at Halifax Minster.  A few days later a US serviceman murdered 16 Afghan civilians, shooting men women and children as they slept. This follows many often unreported incidents of British and US troops gratuitously torturing and killing Afghan civilians. Such things were common in Iraq. Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed over the past eleven years. Their names are unknown, their deaths unremarkable. Wars of this kind always give rise to such atrocities. And the folks back home are seldom encouraged to consider them. Those who commit them are “our boys”, or, as The Sun newspaper likes to describe them “our heroes”. When such incidents do come to light because they are so horrendous that they cannot easily be covered up, the perpetrators are said to be mentally unstable and their acts are treated as isolated incidents. But the unpalatable truth is that all wars dehumanize those involved in them. Colonial-type wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan encourage and cultivate racism directed against the people whose countries are occupied. And now, with the war so obviously lost, it looks as though the “essential allies” in Nato’s “international mission” in Afghanistan are likely to reap the whirlwind of fury that will surely rise against them. When the “Nato mission” is forced to withdraw, which is now likely to be long before 2014 – the corrupt Karzai regime is unlikely to survive for very long. Karzai will probably be overthrown by his own army. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer under whatever type of government replaces his. It will not be enlightened or democratic, but at least it will not be the puppet of foreign invaders.