Leading article: American interests are not always the same as ours

Click to follow
THE UNITED STATES, as President Clinton made quite clear on Thursday night, has struck at terrorist targets in order to defend her own interests. Whether or not there is anything wrong with that, it is worth examining the effect on British interests. Are American interests necessarily our own?

Certainly Downing Street seems to think so, given the Prime Minister's rapid endorsement of Clinton's decision to act militarily. But other world leaders have acted with far greater caution. The French waited 15 hours to issue a very reserved statement; the Chinese reserved judgement; Boris Yeltsin condemned the action. Of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has been alone in its unqualified support. The legal basis for the American action is suspect at best; the UN Secretary General has already expressed his concern, and the Sudanese are threatening to raise the matter in the General Assembly. No one would wish to defend terrorists, or would lose any sleep if their capacity to maim and kill was destroyed. But do we wish to appear before world opinion as American apologists?

With no crucial British interests immediately at stake, Mr Blair might at least have thought twice about issuing such enthusiastic statements in support of his American friends. He seems to labour under the illusion that his utterances carry the weight they would have 50 years ago, a failing that also marked Mrs Thatcher's time in office. What does it matter if Mr Clinton telephones him minutes before he acts, when Britain has no power to affect events? Clearly, it affords him great pleasure to be so involved; but this limited "consultation" has served only to place British citizens in danger, by creating the impression that Britain has been a party to the raids.

The Americans seem to have been meticulously prepared for their attacks. They withdrew staff from their embassies in the countries about to be attacked; their intelligence services had very detailed information about both the Afghan training areas and the Sudanese chemical factory. They appear to have been less concerned to lessen the impact of their actions on British citizens around the world. British Embassy staff, and her military personnel on active service in the Middle East, had no warning of the danger that they were being placed in.

We must now await the inevitable backlash. The empty American Embassy in the Sudan has been ransacked; the Afghan Taliban have vented their fury on the US and her allies. One French UN soldier serving in Kabul, and an Italian colleague, have already been shot and wounded without their governments being strongly identified with the American action. We must also watch helplessly the developing impact on Britain's diplomatic position, hardly bolstered by our support for an attack which landed missiles in Pakistan, threatening ties with an old and long-established ally. In fact, nowhere do Britain's diplomatic interests seem to have been served.

Then there is Northern Ireland. On what moral scale are the Provisional IRA, still armed if on ceasefire, different to the Islamic extremists led by Osama bin Laden? And on what basis does Mr Clinton urge peaceful bridge-building in Ireland, but deprecate it in the Middle East and Central Asia? When the President comes to Ireland next month, his credibility will be further undermined by the widespread belief that he deals with terrorism on an ad hoc basis, depending on his domestic political needs.

Mr Clinton is indeed responsible for the safety of American citizens; the impression he gives, though, is that his response is one thing when foreigners are harmed, and quite another when Americans are in danger. Patriotic and emotional responses were understandable when receiving home the bodies of his diplomats; they are less so now he has had time to reflect. He, at least, can defend his actions under the United Nations Charter as self-defence, but Mr Blair holds no such brief. If we are to live in a world of self-defence and self-interest, we should at least defend ours by refusing to act as if we are the 51st State of the Union. Our special relationship need not become an inappropriate one.