WHAT are the bugles blowin’ for?” asks the soldier in Rudyard Kipling’s haunting poem. In Iraq the other day they were sounding the retreat, as the British Army departed the city of Basra amid mutual recriminations. Gen. Jack Keane, the retired vice chief of staff of the United States Army, says that the Brits messed up, while Gen. Sir Mike Jackson argues that Donald Rumsfeld’s entire plan was “intellectually bankrupt.” Then last week, Senator John Kerry sarcastically asked Gen. David Petraeus if the British had done the right thing, in which case maybe America should follow suit.
Although General Petraeus himself predictably and properly said in London yesterday that he was proud of his British allies, President Bush says he has no intention of withdrawing from Iraq any time soon. And there is no doubt that the White House is displeased with Gordon Brown, the new prime minister, for not only pulling out of Basra but also pulling back from his predecessor’s intimate embrace of the Bush administration. Is it possible that those buglers were also sounding the last post for the Anglo-American alliance in Iraq — or even for the supposed “special relationship” between the two countries?
This relationship has always been a curious notion. Along with the even more dubious idea that Churchill popularized of a community of “English-speaking peoples,” it is sustained by make-believe and rewritten history. Americans don’t often use the phrase, but there was an almost comical exception when Senator John McCain visited England last year. “The special relationship between our two countries will endure throughout the 21st century,” he said. “I say that with total confidence because it’s lasted for 200 years.”
It has what? The senator’s “200 years” would take us back to the early years of the 19th century, or let’s say to 1812. What was special about the relationship that year was that the two countries were at war. Some of us take modest patriotic pride recalling the day that our brave lads burned the White House. And when he sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” can Senator McCain have forgotten that it was a British rocket’s red glare?
For the next century the two countries were decidedly more often on bad terms than good. A large part of the British Army was stationed in Canada to protect it from its southern neighbor, and with good reason. Before the Civil War, Sir Robert Peel warned Parliament about the grave danger of an American war; during it, the secretary of state, William Seward, wanted to declare war on England and was supposedly restrained only by Lincoln himself (“One war at a time, Mr. Seward”); after it, there was a bitter dispute about a Confederate warship built in England.
In 1895 the two countries nearly went to war over a trivial border dispute in South America, and it was recorded at the time that in America a war with England would be the most popular of wars. And again in 1914: not only did Woodrow Wilson worry that he might need to intervene on the German side because of the British naval blockade but it was reckoned that more Americans would have wanted to fight against England than for it.
The two did quite briefly fight together in two world wars, but only Tony Blair, after telling a grieving New York six years ago that “My father’s generation went through the blitz; they know what it is like to suffer this deep tragedy and attack,” could have added: “There was one country and one people which stood by us at that time. That country was America, and those people were the American people.” He meant the blitz in the winter of 1940-41, when the United States was conspicuously neutral.
And yet perhaps that quaint version of history helps explain Mr. Blair’s decision to commit British troops to an invasion of Iraq. Since 1949 the two have been allies in NATO, a pact of mutual defense “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” which would not appear to cover the Middle East. But then Mr. Blair believed it his duty to support Washington, because “it would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so.”
That’s quite close to saying, “Their country right or wrong,” and it is a novel doctrine. Even during the NATO years the two countries have been very far from standing side by side in each other’s every endeavor outside that North Atlantic area. In 1956, Eisenhower was appalled by the Suez caper, when the British conspired with France and Israel to attack Egypt, and pulled the rug from under the conspirators, and 10 years later the British Army did not serve in Vietnam as Lyndon Johnson had hoped.
Even in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, despite her obvious kinship with Ronald Reagan, was a much less uncritical supporter of Washington than Mr. Blair later was. She was dismayed by the initial lukewarm response from Washington when Argentina invaded the Falklands, then enraged by the American invasion of Grenada.
And she said something at that time that might usefully have been repeated later. The Western democracies use force “to preserve our way of life — we do not use it to walk into other people’s countries.” If a new law is ordained that the United States will intervene wherever there is a regime that it dislikes, Mrs. Thatcher said, “then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world.”
She never spoke more prescient words. But at least one beneficial consequence of this really terrible war in Iraq would be if the pretense of the “special relationship” were dropped for good. We are two friendly countries, with many shared values, and some common interests. Isn’t that enough?