British Bulldog or Bush's Poodle? Anglo-American Relations and the Iraq War

Article excerpt

On 26 February 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the largest parliamentary rebellion in over a hundred years. Some 120 of his Labour Party colleagues voted against the government's policy of support for US military action against Iraq. Earlier that month, more than one million people had taken to the streets of London to protest against the prospect of war, while respondents to a UK Internet poll had voted America the country that posed the greatest threat to world peace. The UK's major partners in Europe--France and Germany--also opposed Britain's stance, the government having singularly failed in its self-appointed role of providing a bridge of understanding between Europe and the United States. Prime Minister Blair faced personal attacks in the media, being frequently portrayed as America's lap dog; even Nelson Mandela referred to him disapprovingly as the foreign minister of the United States. The Prime Minister's political survival itself seemed to be at stake.

In the face of such pressures, it would have been understandable if the British government had taken a less determined position on Iraq. In spite of the oft-touted "special relationship," British and American governments have not always seen eye-to-eye during international crises. But that was not the case. Notwithstanding dissension and resignations from his Cabinet, Prime Minister Blair's advocacy of the Bush Administration's hard line on Iraq hardly wavered, diplomatic support remained constant and vigorous, and Britain was the only American ally to make a sizable military contribution to the campaign. It is not surprising then that Tony Blair has been hailed as a hero in the United States, becoming the first Briton since Winston Churchill to be nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal.

Blair's firm leadership was critical to sustaining the British government's support for US policy in Iraq. For some commentators, the Prime Minister's resolve demonstrated principled, international statesmanship; to others it displayed a naive faith in American virtue. Regardless, foreign policy in a parliamentary democracy is rarely made at the whim of even a powerful personality like Tony Blair. (1) There are many factors beside Blair's leadership that helped to shape the government's thinking. These included the long-standing special Anglo-American relationship, an institutionalized habit of security cooperation between the two countries, an ambitious perception of Britain's role in the modern world, and an apparently genuine conviction that Saddam Hussein's regime posed a threat to national security. This article addresses these issues and places them in historical context. It also draws conclusions about the British government's support for US policy on Iraq and its significance for Anglo-American relations in the medium term.

A Special Relationship

The partnership between the United States and United Kingdom has been described as "a relationship rooted in common history, common values, and common interests around the globe." (2) It has been become a journalistic cliche to refer to this as a "special relationship," but such a description has been in common usage since first coined by Winston Churchill during his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. The close diplomatic and military relationship between the UK and the United States had its origins in the strategic partnership of the Second World War. It was sustained by common security concerns throughout the Cold War, and was revived in the 1990s by a mutual recognition of the need to cooperate against new threats to international peace and stability. After 9/11, Prime Minister Blair's proactive role in the war against terrorism and his strong, supportive line on Iraq brought new vigor to the Anglo-American partnership. On a visit to Britain in May 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not a notable Anglophile, exclaimed, "The special relationship between the US and the UK is stronger than ever, and Americans are the better for it. …