Why do I feel so queasy about this special relationship?

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The Independent Culture
ON THE day that scandal swirled around Robin Cook's head last weekend, we were told that he had spent some time talking with Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, on the telephone. The image the spin doctors wanted to convey was of a man intent on doing his job, refusing to be distracted by the flying shrapnel of his former wife's book. With Iraq and Kosovo looming large, Mr Cook had serious things on his mind. The strategy worked. And so the sorry details of brandy bottles and pills and affairs seemed to slip back into the world of private pain and bitterness from which they had emerged.

The tabloids had a brief field day. So, too, the broadsheets, falling over themselves to find the "serious" political angle, the broader implications. The fact is, there were none. The Blair Government was not wounded, and the Tories had the wit not to make a big deal of it. Mr Hague wisely realised that there are bigger fish to fry, issues of real political responsibility.

I did read some ingenious tosh about Mr Cook's further political ambitions having been destroyed, as if a man with that many political enemies had any serious chances of higher office. The Foreign Office is destined to be the pinnacle of Mr Cook's achievements. He may yet turn out to be one of the best foreign secretaries of recent years, but higher office will surely elude him. Anyway, by the week's end the Cook saga had burnt itself out. May it stay that way.

I don't know what fresh scandal will emerge from the next instalment, but should we care? Not unless we learn that Mr Cook has compromised the nation's foreign policy, or that he has abused his power in some way. That is the crucial difference between last weekend's revelations and the crisis that has engulfed the most famous liar in the world, William Jefferson Clinton. Robin Cook's private life may have been a mess, but he wasn't a perjurer. Nor are there allegations of sexual assault. Mr Cook should be left well alone on this score.

No, the relationship we should worry about is the one that kept Mr Cook talking to Ms Albright last weekend, the "special" relationship, which at this moment has British fighters on standby for another foray against Saddam Hussein. Any day now Saddam will calculate that it is time to provoke another bombing raid. And the cruise missiles will be dispatched and our jets will soar over Iraq. There will be claims of substantial damage to Iraq's military capability, the Iraqis will parade the coffins of dead civilians and at the end of it we shall still be left with Saddam.

But the closeness of our relationship with the Americans seems to have blinded any hope of an independent British perspective on Iraq. I have asked myself repeatedly in recent weeks why I feel so uncomfortable at the sight of those jets hurling themselves into the air in the Gulf. I don't doubt for a moment that Saddam is as big a tyrant as every Middle East expert suggests. I also tend to believe that he is a threat to the safety and security of the region. Nor do I harbour the remotest trace of anti-Americanism. The Yanks have been good friends in the past. They are natural allies. So why am I queasy?

I think that it's this feeling that our Iraqi policy is policy made in Washington, our response to American demands for support increasingly Pavlovian. Remember that last year, when the Americans wished to avoid confrontation with Saddam, they decided to undermine the work of the United Nations inspectors. Containment rather than serious inspection became the policy. Britain fell obediently into line and became part of the effort to pressurise the inspectors into taking a less proactive line in searching for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. We know precisely where that decision took us.

Now that the Americans have decided to take the opposite tack, we are in there with them again. And is there any serious public debate on the matter here? None that I can see. We've had the expected statements from the old left. But their reflexive anti-Americanism and willingness to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt tend to marginalise their position.

The centre ground, on which any serious debate takes place in British politics these days, is strangely quiet. Why, when British servicemen are being sent to bomb a foreign country, is no serious political figure of the centre asking where all this is taking us? The fear of being seen to comfort Saddam is one obvious reason. But there is another, more insidious problem; we have simply gotten into the habit of following the Americans. Bosnia, I will allow, was an exception. But on the most dangerous foreign policy issue of these times - Saddam Hussein - the British body politic is remarkably willing to follow an incoherent American lead.

I must admit here to a certain prejudice. Five years ago, when the world's worst genocide since the Nazis was unfolding in Rwanda, I watched people dying while the US ensured that there would be no military intervention to save them. In fact it was worse than that. I remember talking to frustrated UN commanders in Kigali who couldn't even get their hands on armoured vehicles for patrolling because the Americans were haggling over the terms - a tactic to delay even the most tentative military involvement.

We now know - courtesy of one of the senior American officials involved - that this wilful abandonment of Rwanda's Tutsi minority had the full support of the British. The US decided not to use the word "genocide" until it was far too late to make any difference. Using that word would have compelled the international community to take action.

Michael Barnett, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was one of the American crisis managers. He remembers the UN Security Council meetings at which the British representatives backed the Americans: "They were our friends. They were making the same argument, oftentimes much more eloquently than we were, and it was good to have another powerful, permanent member of the Security Council make the argument."

A million dead people later, our willingness to row in so willingly behind the Americans seems shameful. I remember meeting a friend from the Foreign Office on my way back from Rwanda. He told me that there was no strategic reason for Britain to get involved. We knew nothing of Rwanda; we had no policy of our own. And so we backed the American policy of doing nothing. A few months later, when thousands were dying from cholera in the camps of Goma, the British and Americans were falling over themselves to send food and medical supplies. It was too late for the victims of genocide.

Now, I don't equate the moral abandonment implicit in the Rwandan tragedy with the events in the Gulf. Different causes, different consequences. And I don't know what should be done about Saddam; easy solutions there are none. But if Rwanda taught us anything, it is that our foreign policy makers need to step back from the "special relationship". It was forged on the battlefields of the Second World War and strengthened in the Cold War, a necessary binding in dangerous times. I don't doubt that the Americans will remain strong allies for years to come. But it is time for more independent thinking and serious debate. Mr Cook must be the author of a foreign policy that is not only ethical but also stands on its own two feet. That should be his lasting legacy.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent.