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That special relationship: one-sided and foolish

ON THURSDAY Tony Blair jumped to attention and gave his unconditional support for the American bombing raids on supposed terrorist centres in Sudan and Afghanistan. By doing so, he demonstrated once again the Great Illusion of British foreign policy since 1945: the belief that British and American interests must be identical, or simply that the Americans are on our side.

It is curious that this illusion has persisted. It was, after all, conclusively falsified as long ago as 1956, when the Eden government embarked on its Suez adventure in the confident assumption of the support, or at least benevolent neutrality, of Washington, only to have the financial rug pulled out by the Eisenhower administration. Ever since, the Americans have supported us when it suited them, but not otherwise.

In the age of mutually assured destruction, the Atlantic alliance was based on a particular assumption, or fable convenue, that an American president would see dozens of American cities and millions of Americans incinerated to "defend" Western Europe. Mercifully, this was never put to the test, but in hindsight it looks like an illusion.

Labour governments have always been quite as devoted to the Atlantic alliance as Tories, despite the anti-Americanism of the left, though that itself is a comparatively recent sentiment. In the 19th century it was English radicals who revered the United States as the land of freedom, equality and opportunity, unfettered by aristocratic privilege and old corruption.

And Tories disliked America for the same reasons, along with resentment of a rival which might, and indeed did, one day defy and supplant the British Empire. For the English upper classes, America was vulgar and insolent, at best a useful place to invest in - and the US was a financial as well as a cultural dependency of England until well into this century - and an equally useful source of heiresses for economically challenged English aristocrats.

That tradition of High Tory anti-Americanism lived on at least until the demise of the Morning Post just over 60 years ago. More recently Enoch Powell kept it alive - paradoxically making him "to the left of Labour on Nato and nuclear weapons", in the words of Tariq Ali - as Alan Clark still does in his idiosyncratic fashion.

In some ways that Tory anti-Americanism was more attractive than the more recent anti-Americanism of the left. What the left could not see - or bear - is that in itself, within its borders, and with all its faults, the US remains a great country, truly the last best hope of mankind. Too many on the European left this century came to hate America because it wasn't Soviet Russia; they were anti-American not despite but because there were no American show trials, secret police and labour camps.

That infantile anti-Americanism lives on to this day on the Pilgering left. There is one simple empirical test. The US remains the country on earth more people want to get into than any other. John Pilger himself might occasionally reflect that his own beloved countries, from Vietnam to Iraq to Cuba, are full of people desperate to get out of them.

And the most tiresome thing about the left's anti-Americanism is that its misprision makes rational criticism of American policy harder. For the truth is that, if the US is a fine exemplar of a free and open society, it is notably ill-equipped to be a great power, let alone the only superpower on earth. As the past weeks have shown yet again, the world is full of problems and conflicts that are simply too deep, complex and intractable for the Americans to begin to understand.

American policy is too often based on petulance and ignorance. And far too often, from the Holy Land to Ulster to Nato expansion, it is driven by the tritest and unworthiest of domestic political considerations. We saw that again last week. The very idea that Bill Clinton ordered the killing of other human beings at least in part in order to distract attention from his own sordid difficulties is utterly horrible. But does anyone from Kabul to Washington doubt it?

In which case, why does Tony Blair display his samurai loyalty to the President? Before this week the Prime Minister had already done everything he could to help Clinton, throwing him a lifeline when the Lewinsky scandal broke. Of course, the Prime Minister could scarcely be expected to denounce the President, but Blair's insistence, in private as well as public, that Clinton is a nice guy and a decent man doesn't say much for his judgement.

It's true that they are near contemporaries, the first men in their offices born after 1945, and it is sometimes claimed that there is an authentic affinity between the two, though it is hard to imagine Dirty Bill regaling Boy Scout Tony with tales of his private adventures. Perhaps they really do have a common interest in the "Third Way" project, whatever that may be.

Then again, there is that long-standing Atlanticism of Labour governments. The first two pre-war Labour governments were too short-lived to have a discernible foreign policy, and in any case the US was then in its deepest isolationist phase. But it was the government of CR Attlee and his foreign secretary Ernest Bevin that created the Atlantic Alliance, carried out the Berlin airlift and entered the Korean war. And, as defence secretary 30 years later, Denis Healey was as dedicated a supporter of Nato as Bevin.

Plainly, and whatever "revisionist" historians may say, this was in response to an authentic Soviet threat, but there was an element of protesting too much, of demonstrating that democratic socialists cared as much as, if not more than, Conservatives about the defence of the free world, and could be just as tough on Communism, despite some of their colleagues or their own backgrounds. Attlee and Bevin sat on the Treasury bench with at least two dozen out-and-out fellow-travellers on the backbenches behind them, while Lord Healey backed Atlanticism and opposed unilateralism with all the zeal of a convert from Stalinism.

But now that Soviet Communism is dead and the Cold War won, that unconditional loyalty has lost whatever justification it may once have had. And it is plain foolish to support the present American president of all people in every circum- stance. Last Friday Madeleine Albright promised a "long- term battle against terrorists", to which one answer is that a long- term anything from the Clinton administration is what logicians call a closed category, like "a square circle".

The two countries still have common interests - but that is the word. A wise British prime minister would forget about a "special relationship", which was special chiefly in that only one side ever knew that it existed (and relationships don't come more special than that). He would see himself as America's candid friend, supporting Washington only when support was deserved. And he would follow Palmerston's principle: we have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. After all, that, in practice, is what the Americans themselves have always done.

Alan Watkins is away.