Anthony Sampson: Britain has been shamefully exploited by Bush in his campaign for re-election

We have become tacitly involved in helping the President at a time when his victory will damage our interests in the future

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Looking back on American elections since the Second World War, it is hard not to agree that the results next Tuesday will be the most crucial for Britain, at least since 1948 when the Democrat President Truman was elected. For this election revolves round foreign policy like no other.

Looking back on American elections since the Second World War, it is hard not to agree that the results next Tuesday will be the most crucial for Britain, at least since 1948 when the Democrat President Truman was elected. For this election revolves round foreign policy like no other.

For the 40 years of the Cold War most British people roughly supported the foreign policy of both American parties, based on the need to confront the communist world. Now there is no such consensus; and most British voters are seriously concerned that President Bush is leading them in the wrong direction, towards a global confrontation they never wished for.

However cautious John Kerry may be in attacking the war in Iraq, there is no doubt that Bush is much more likely to escalate the danger; for his administration systematically planned for the invasion in the first place, and will find it much harder to retreat than their opponents.

And the British have seen that foreign policy diverge further from their own interests over the past year as the war has continued. Since the formal occupation of Iraq ended, the Americans in Iraq have become still more preoccupied with their military offensive, still unable to capture the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqis, despite their theoretical support for the interim Iraqi government. Most British diplomats, as well as the public, agree with the ambassador in Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, who said privately that George Bush is the best recruiting sergeant for Osama bin Laden.

The American hostility and insensitivity to ordinary Muslims are now risking a much wider confrontation with Islam across the world. That can not only provoke new terrorist movements, but also cause a serious energy crisis - since most of the world's oil is in Islamic countries - which could in turn lead to a global recession, as happened after the oil crisis of 1973.

All these trends are directly at odds with traditional British foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia which has been based on accommodation with the Islamic powers, and with the perceptions after 11 September. Yet Blair's government has committed itself totally to George Bush's policy, with little tolerance of dissent, and has thus become an important support to Bush in his election campaign, providing evidence that his policy is supported by his most respected ally.

Leading members of the old British establishment - including not only diplomats, but also academics, civil servants and judges - have become increasingly concerned about the implications of Washington's actions, whether because of its geopolitical mistakes or for its defiance of human rights. "For the first time I feel myself anti-American," one of the law lords has said privately. But their voice is little heard in Washington, where Blair's unwavering support overwhelms all other perceptions of British opinion.

And the British military has had the most serious concerns, based on its experience in the Iraq theatre. It has watched with dismay the succession of American blunders, beginning with the disbanding of the well-armed Iraqi army, the boycott of all Baathist managers, continuing with the ruthless attacks on Fallujah and the indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The new estimate of 100,000 civilian Iraqi deaths only confirms the concerns of many British officers that the war was permanently alienating the Iraqi majority.

Yet the American elections are coinciding, whether by accident or design, with a much closer commitment of British troops to American tactics. The soldiers of the Black Watch are even now moving into the Baghdad area under ultimate American command to free American troops for the forthcoming attack on Fallujah - with which the UK will inevitably be implicated.

British commanders had hoped that they could influence American tactics by coming closer to their military. In the early stage of the occupation of Iraq - it can now be revealed - many of them supported a proposal to send British troops to the streets of Baghdad to assist in patrolling, to try to moderate the American hardline attitudes to civilians. That plan was eventually turned down in the Ministry of Defence, and subsequent American requests for British troops in Baghdad were rejected, with growing embarrassment.

Now the British army could not indefinitely be seen as evading the most dangerous theatre, while British commanders in Iraq are once again hoping that they can moderate American policy by becoming more active participants in the central battlefield. But there has never been much sign that British voices have been heard among American policy-makers, whether in the Pentagon or in Iraq. And the immediate result of the British presence in Baghdad must be to strengthen the hand of President Bush, by showing support for his hardline offensive.

Thus the British have become tacitly involved in helping the incumbent president, whether they liked it or not, at a time when his victory will damage their own interests more seriously in future. And while it may be true that Bush does not seriously need their support, there is no doubt that if the British Government publicly disowned Bush's policies - in tune with most British public opinion - they would help John Kerry.

It marks a subservience to Washington with no real precedent over the past five decades, as even old-style conservatives committed to the transatlantic alliance would agree. Whatever the left-wing misgivings over the hawkish American Cold Warriors during those years, most of the British population agreed with the need to combat communism resolutely. There is no such consensus for Washington's ham-handed approach to the Middle East, the growing Islamophobia and strong tilt towards Sharon's militant policies.

It is a shaming experience to watch Britain being so exploited in an election which is so uniquely critical for its future. If President Bush is re-elected on Tuesday, the recriminations in Britain will continue long afterwards, and play a large part in the British elections next year.

The consciousness of subservience to a dangerous ally will take time to sink in. But the resurgence of American nationalism which lies behind Bush's success must inevitably lead to some revival of British nationalism in the wake of this humiliating dependence.

Next Tuesday's elections in America will be seen as a watershed, dividing the confident alliance with Washington from the doubts and fears about the relationship in the future. And only British politicians who can discuss those fears frankly can be sure of the trust of the British people.

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