These days the lion only whines

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The Independent Online
THERE will be a special relationship, of one kind or another, between Britain and the United States as long as there is an English language. But the relationship is in worse shape, politically speaking, in 1994 than at any time since Suez.

The damage is at its worst among the Democrats, and this is extremely serious, since they have majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as the presidency. But the Republicans don't have much use for Britain's present government, either, even though that government went to such extraordinary lengths to help George Bush in the presidential election of 1992, thus alienating the winner, Bill Clinton. But the Republicans of today don't want to know about George Bush anymore than about John Major. A Republican flier has just been issued in connection with this year's mid-term congressional elections. It carries pictures of three worthies: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Bob Dole. This is a reminder of how great the relationship once was, and now is not.

All Americans knew who Mrs Thatcher was. Most admired her, and all who could conceivably vote Republican not only admired her when she was prime minister but still admire her. That is why her picture is on that flier.

The Tories, when they ditched Mrs Thatcher, may possibly have been doing the right thing by their party, and for its fortunes in Britain. But they were throwing away a great asset in international relations, especially relations with America. And Britain acquired, in place of that asset, a liability. If Britain repudiated that marvellous Margaret Thatcher, well, there must be something wrong with Britain, mustn't there?

As for Mr Major, his name and image carry hardly any connotations here. But for those who do know something about him, the connotations are negative, consisting mainly of a vague impression that he is the guy who stabbed Mrs Thatcher in the back.

The deterioration shows in a number of ways. There is the decision to ignore British protests and sell aircraft with advanced radar to Argentina. That could not have happened under Mrs Thatcher. There is increasing talk of an emerging Franco-American leadership, especially over Bosnia. Britain is presented as dragging its feet over Bosnia. I believe Britain was right to oppose the drift towards military intervention. But for the present it is the French who are giving a lead in the direction favoured by popular opinion in America.

Then there is the small but revealing episode of Gerry Adams and his visa. First of all, Mr Adams would not have been granted an American visa while Mrs Thatcher was prime minister. Mrs Thatcher inspired fear, both in Washington and in Dublin. Mr Major inspires nothing in particular, in either capital. Since the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December, with its fatal concession of the Hume-Adams wording on self-determination, Albert Reynolds has been under the impression that he can get away with pretty well anything where the present British government is concerned, even getting an American visa for the political head of the Provisional IRA, while the IRA's 'armed struggle' against Britain continues.

The granting of that visa was one symptom of a general deterioration in Anglo-American relations. But the consequences of granting the visa have accelerated the deterioration.

This was not mainly a result of Gerry Adams' anti-British tirades on Larry King Live and elsewhere. These reached huge audiences but embarrassed his more respectable sponsors, who had bought the line that Mr Adams is now an earnest seeker after peace. There was consequently a certain revulsion against him in influential quarters.

But then Mr Major's government, by the form of its protest, compounded the damage already done. It is in general inadvisable for a government to protest publicly against something it has been unable to stop. This only advertises the inability in question. And this was all the worse because the inability was the result not of harsh fate but of sheer incompetence.

Mr Major could have nipped that visa in the bud. He should have known what Albert Reynolds was up to and made him stop. He should have called on Mr Reynolds to oppose - as all previous Irish governments have done - the granting of a visa to the president of Sinn Fein. He should have warned Mr Reynolds that if he failed to do so, he would be placing the future of the Anglo-Irish agreement in danger. Had Mr Major done that, Mr Reynolds would have advised Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Kennedy to withhold support from this year's visa application as from previous ones, and the visa would not have been granted.

Having failed to prevent what he could quietly have prevented, Mr Major then protested at the top of his voice: several decibels too loud to be of help to Anglo-American relations in their present frail condition. To send a formal protest to the British ambassador in Washington would have been enough. To carpet the American ambassador in London was far too flamboyant. It inevitably evoked the anti- British component always latent in American nationalism.

The New York Times is rather less nationalistic than most Americans and is generally not anti-British. Yet its comment on the carpeting of the American ambassador was the nastiest I have seen in a respectable American newspaper in relation to an ally of the United States. The editorial appeared Saturday under the headline: 'The Lion Whines About Mr Adams'. The heading faithfully reflects the hostile and contemptuous tone of the whole editorial.

The argument was on First Amendment lines, as if this was a British attempt to impose censorship on the United States, instead of a protest against the granting of a visa to a known enemy of Britain and a spokesman for terrorism. But the tone of the editorial was unmistakably that of aroused American nationalism on an anti-British binge. Intellectually, the editorial is contemptible, but as a symptom of dangerous forces at work in unexpected places it must be taken seriously.

In general, there may not be a lot Mr Major can do about improving Anglo- American relations. But there is one not insignificant area in which he can do something. He can warn Dublin - belatedly but still effectively - that if it again lends itself to making trouble for Britain in the US, it will undermine the Anglo-Irish agreement through activities incompatible with the spirit of that agreement. Mr Reynolds would take such a warning seriously.

For the rest, Mr Major should reflect that he has now to mend his fences with a US administration which his government foolishly strove to prevent from ever coming into being. He has a lot to live down. President Clinton's hero is John F Kennedy, whose motto was: 'Forgive your enemies, but remember their names.' (Photograph omitted)