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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Anglo-American Relations: Is Clegg the British Obama?

In a recent visit to the University of Manchester, Louis Sussman, the US ambassador to Britain, noted that the 'special relationship' was alive and well. Anglo-American relations, he implied, were as strong as ever, dismissing recently-expressed doubts - in documents ranging from a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report to a Ministry of Defence paper, not to mention statements by Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders - about America's commitment to an alliance that's over 60 years old.

Yet, as USBlog has noted, there appear to be increasingly-loud objections among British politicians to the Anglo-American alliance (see several posts below). Tonight's UK election debate, focusing on foreign policy, offers an opportunity for all three party leaders - Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg - to state clearly their own positions on this central relationship, the very foundation stone of Britain's post-1945 role in the world.

The clamour around Nick Clegg is now intense. Some hail him as "Britain's Obama", the real "change" candidate who will inaugurate a sea-change in British foreign policy. They point to the fact that the Lib-Dems, like Obama, opposed the Iraq War, which was fully supported by Tony Blair's government and the Tory opposition (indeed, David Cameron has stated that, despite the lack of WMD found in Iraq after the invasion, and the profound levels of deception that were used to justify aggression, that he would do exactly the same again). They point to the fact that Clegg is a relative "outsider" offering a fresh approach - a new politics of hope - just as Obama did. And some point out Clegg's mixed parentage (half-Russian father, Dutch mother) and cosmopolitan outlook - (a bit) like Obama's own background.

But is Clegg the British Obama? And if so, is this a good thing? After all, Obama's record on national security and foreign policy matters has disappointed large swathes of his supporters: the Guantanmo Bay detention camp remains open, Obama is appealing a district court decision to extend US constitutional protections to detainees at the Bagram air base detention camp, Israel continues to build illegal settlements and bomb and destroy Palestinian territories at will, and the war in Afghanistan continues to intensify under an illegitimate regime elected by a minority of the people, violating the constitution written with American endorsement.

Obama famously opposed the Iraq War: but on what grounds? That it was illegal? No? That it was wrong to attack a country that constituted no threat to the US? No. He claimed in Autumn 2002 that a war against Iraq was a "dumb war" with no strategic rationale. And as the war/occupation descended into crisis, he argued that it brought American power and liberal interventionism into disrepute. That is, the 'dumb' war in Iraq was discrediting American interventionism in general and rasing the spectre of the Vietnam 'syndrome' - a general fear of large-scale, long-term military commitments - not a good thing for the world's policeman. Obama was and is no pacifist. He's a firm believer in America's right to intervene within or beyond international law and the United Nations should America see fit. America remains the 'indispensable nation' which sees further and better than others.

Nick Clegg defines himself as a liberal interventionist. The Iraq War, he told a leading British foreign policy think tank (Chatham House) in 2008, undermined the general principle of liberal interventionism - the right of US, British and other western countries to send armies and other forces abroad to put a stop to whatever they deem unacceptable (usually in countries unfriendly to western interests). This viewpoint inevitably leads Clegg - and Cameron and Brown, however much they claim to be distancing themselves from the United States - back into the arms of the Americans. Without US support, Britain would find it almost impossible to commit military forces abroad. This was the case in the Falklands War of 1982, for example.

If Clegg is Britain's Obama, at least in foreign policy terms, we should be worried.

The only other problem is that both Cameron and Brown have near-identical beliefs to Clegg's. Three parties, one view: democracy in the twenty-first century!

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