Our special relationship with America is stuck in a time-warp

This small island of medium economic clout is always there with its expensive armoury alongside the US
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The Independent Culture
IN A year's time will it be President Clinton or Saddam Hussein who is still in power? The question hangs over the increasingly familiar political choreography of war in Britain.

The Commons met in "sombre mood"; the political correspondents huddled outside Downing Street to give us the latest information from Prime Ministerial spokesmen; defence correspondents had the word from the MoD; the BBC offered extended news reporting what had happened and speculating on what would happen next. But nobody could answer my question, although the future of Britain's foreign policy depends upon it.

For underlying the unanswerable question lies one which the British Government needs to address once the immediate crisis has passed: what are we doing in this special relationship with such an unreliable and unpredictable country as the US and how does the relationship fit in with Britain's role in Europe?

In Washington, Clinton was vindicated repeatedly by the ballot box but rails against a system which condemns him to near impotence. Abroad he raises his warning finger against a grotesque tyrant who takes no notice. In terms of his domestic crisis he has no armoury left. Do not believe for a moment that Clinton took his eye off the ball, intoxicated by sustained support in the polls. Clinton could have massaged Republican egos, soothed Republican souls and still face impeachment.

The voters are a peripheral side-show as they have been throughout the Clinton presidency. They voted him in, they endorsed his programmes and then the American constitution prevented him from carrying much of it out. Health service reforms? No way. Gays in the military? Forget it. Step back from impeachment prompted initially by a trivial presidential fling? Not a chance.

It will be much easier for the Republicans to remove Clinton from office than it will be for anyone to remove Saddam Hussein. Yet, apart from the removal of Saddam, is there any other justifiable end game which inflames, divides and costs lives? It is a truly nightmarish situation. A violation of international will demanded a response, but one is seemingly unavailable to America and Britain that will result in the removal of Saddam.

If anything the reverse is the case, and military action will bolster, at least temporarily, his situation. In the short term,Tony Blair had no choice, given all the previous threats and the way they have been treated with such deceit, but to sanction air strikes. The finger-wagging had to backed up with action this time. But how Britain got itself into a situation where joint military action with the US became the only option demands wider reflection.

For once it is a war being contested without any obvious immediate political consequences in Britain, except conceivably negative ones for the Government if events go badly wrong. With Blair standing so high in the polls already there can be no "Falklands Factor", which helped the Iron Lady rise from the depths of unpopularity to electoral invincibility. Politics was never quite the same again after her military adventure in 1982, although she would still have won the following year's election easily because of the schism on the left.

Nor will there a "Gulf war" factor that produced record-breaking personal ratings for John Major and so encouraged Michael Heseltine to press for an early "khaki election" in 1991. Sensibly, Major decided not to take up the jingoistic mantle, but his Prime Ministerial status was underpinned by war.

For Blair there is only one way to go in the polls, and that is down. If the operation is a success, his image as a strong leader will no doubt be reinforced. But it is already so firmly embedded in voters' minds that a further surge in the polls is unlikely and politically irrelevant. Labour enjoys a seemingly impregnable lead and, anyway, the election is still far away.

What is more, the support amongst Labour MPs for the action is stronger than in previous crises. I am told, for example, that Clare Short, a barometer figure (as she resigned from the front bench in protest at Labour's support for military action in 1991), veers on the hawkish side now.

But the "special relationship" will require a rethink in the months ahead. In terms of benefits for Britain it has never been particularly "special" unless personal chemistry intervened. America was a reluctant ally in the Falklands.

On his election George Bush showed where his interests lay with a visit to Germany, a more important economic power, long before Britain got a look in. The Blair/Clinton relationship is genuinely strong, based on a shared political outlook and several displays of mutual practical support, not least in Northern Ireland.

The impact of Clinton on British politics has also been underestimated. New Labour would not have existed in quite this form without him. But a rapport between two leaders should not in itself determine foreign policy, which remains stuck in the the early 1950s, the policy of Eden's three interlocking circles where, uniquely, Britain would punch above its weight by having distinct relations with Europe, the US and the Commonwealth.

So, whenever there is an international crisis, this small underperforming island of medium economic clout is there with its hugely expensive armoury alongside the US. Compared, say, with Holland or Sweden, Britain's transport is shambolic, its schools run down and much of its housing squalid. As its European partners prepare to form potentially the most powerful currency in the world, Britain looks on confused and wary. But when it comes to military action, we are always ready to act, weighed down by the military heroism of the past and our refusal to live up to a more mundane standing in the modern world.

Labour's programme of modernisation needs to revisit foreign policy once this crisis has passed. For a while there has been talk of an ethical foreign policy (although Robin Cook revealed to me in an interview recently that he had always sought instead an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy) and there has been a much more positive approach to Europe, but there is still an appetite for military might well above economic status.

When the Treasury sought savings in Britain's defence budget as part of its public-spending review it returned empty-handed. Even under New Labour Britannia has to rule the waves and the skies, albeit as partner.

If the answer to my opening question is that Saddam is dead and buried in a year's time, while Clinton is still in office, the events of recent days will be viewed, retrospectively, in a glowing light. I fear, however, that the dictator will still be in his bunker while an elected President will have been forcibly removed.

The author is political editor of the `New Statesman'