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The U.S. and Britain: Shoulder to Shoulder?

British PM Gordon Brown’s been on the receiving end of some flak over the last couple of days. On a visit to Iraq Tuesday he announced a drawdown in British troop levels from 5,500 to around 4,500 by the end … Read More

By / October 3, 2007

British PM Gordon Brown’s been on the receiving end of some flak over the last couple of days. On a visit to Iraq Tuesday he announced a drawdown in British troop levels from 5,500 to around 4,500 by the end of the year, but the routine photo-op with our boys soon turned into a minor PR disaster. Gordon likes to portray his new administration as having shrugged off the old, bad Blairite ways of spin and media manipulation, so when it emerged that the visit had been brought forward to coincide with the start of the Conservative party conference—and it was pointed out that he had specifically promised such an announcement would be made in Parliament, not in front of the cameras–the words “publicity stunt” started to be bandied about. By the time it became clear that 500 of the 1000-man troop reduction had been announced previously, the media were writing process stories rather than predicting imminent withdrawal from Iraq – not at all the narrative our PM had been looking for.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have had a good conference, and activists are energised and looking forward to an election, if one is called. Labour will still almost certainly win, but it may be enough to stay the Prime Minister’s hand for the time being. There’s enough uncertainty to make Gordon Brown’s decision on whether to go to the country a genuinely difficult one.

What does this mean in foreign policy terms? Well, as I noted a couple of weeks back, British troops are now operating exclusively out of Basra airport; for all intents and purposes they’re halfway onto the Hercules home already. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a small but steady stream of casualties in Helmand province is doing nothing for the public perception of that engagement.

And looming on the horizon is Iran. In this week’s New Yorker, Seymour Hersh suggests that the new Brown government is fully signed up to doing whatever needs to be done to prevent the Iranians going nuclear, up to and including military action if necessary, and that planning for such operations is at an advanced stage. I’ve no idea if the latter is true, but I find it hard to believe that Britain would take part in the current climate.

The stratospheric unpopularity of the Iraq war (which most people have now conveniently forgotten that they supported) means that no one wants to breathe a word about Iran with an election in the offing. The public backlash against airstrikes on the Iranian regime would be swift and politically brutal. Warnings about nukes cut no ice; they said the same about Saddam, the argument goes, and that turned out to be a crock. Nor does belligerent rhetoric from Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel from the map have quite the same resonance here that it does in the U.S.

The chances of any British government providing anything more than token logistical assistance for any attack on Iran in the foreseeable future are incredibly low. If there’s an early election, it’s possible, I suppose, that we’ll stiffen the sinews for one more dance. But Gordon knows that he loses 10,000 votes every time he’s seen holding hands with George. I fear we’re not comfortable going all the way this time. We’ve been hurt before.

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