Worse than a crime, it was a blunder

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALMOST 50 years ago a Labour prime minister went to Washington to warn a United States president not to extend a war. The time was December 1950, the prime minister C R Attlee, the president Harry Truman. The war was in Korea. The extension which Attlee feared was into mainland China, carried out by the US general Douglas MacArthur.

The prime minister was successful in his mission. Indeed, it has become part of Old Labour mythology, though in slightly incorrect form. What is usually asserted is that Attlee prevented Truman from dropping the atomic bomb on China. In a sense this is true. But what the British prime minister was primarily concerned to prevent was any conflict whatever within China's borders.

A subsidiary point is that Attlee would not have crossed the Atlantic at all if his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, had not been ill at the time. As he sometimes said, there was no purpose in keeping a good dog such as Bevin if you did not allow him to bark from time to time.

The story is misleading in a wider sense as well. For in 1945-51 Attlee and Bevin gave the Americans most of what they wanted. This continued a Labour tradition. Even Ramsay MacDonald had assured George V that he considered the Anglo-American alliance to be of crucial importance and that he would be taking personal charge of foreign relations.

After 1964 Harold Wilson made much of what he thought was his friendship with "LBJ", as he called Lyndon Johnson. Wilson supported the Vietnam war in return for US support for the pound sterling, in those days a graver matter than, happily, it is now. Johnson asked Wilson to provide a small - even a token - force to show solidarity with his brave boys from the Bronx and elsewhere. Wilson prudently refused, saying that, alas, public opinion in Blighty would not tolerate even a tiny contingent.

As foreign secretary in 1974-76 James Callaghan was proud of his relationship with the US Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger. In 1974 the Greeks attempted a coup in Cyprus and the Turks invaded the island. The United Kingdom was caught in the middle as guarantor of Cyprus's integrity and independence. The USA possessed an interest in appeasing Turkey because it attached importance to the bases in that country, as it still does. When the conflict was going on, the government looking increasingly unsure about what, if anything, it ought to be doing, I visited Mr Callaghan at his room in the Commons. Shortly after I had turned up, he excused himself, saying he had an urgent call to make to Dr Kissinger. From the adjoining room I heard the foreign secretary:

"Henry? HENRY? Now, to sum up what we agreed before. You provide the muscle and we'll supply the brains. All right?"

Perhaps he, like many of his generation, thought it was impossible to be heard over a long distance unless you talked very loudly; or perhaps the whole performance had been laid on for my benefit, no Dr Kissinger at the end of the line at all, instead some functionary such as Lord McNally or Sir Tom McCaffrey. If he really was there, I thought the foreign secretary was being a shade tactless. Dr Kissinger, with all his manifest deficiencies, was at least as clever as Mr Callaghan. There could be no serious dispute about that. At all events, we shirked our responsibilities and left a situation which a quarter century later is still unresolved.

Of the Conservatives, both Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan had American mothers. Macmillan's mother was the most powerful influence on his life. He also thought he had a special relationship with Jack (as he called him) Kennedy. This bore some fruit when Kennedy reluctantly provided Macmillan with Polaris at Nassau after the cancellation of the Skybolt missile by the US. On another occasion he asked Macmillan whether he did not find he had a headache if he went for more than 24 hours without engaging in sexual intercourse. As Macmillan found this activity - certainly its discussion - distasteful, and was in any case an elderly 68 at the time, he was unable to make any response.

Lady Thatcher got on marvellously with Mr Ronald Reagan, mainly because he was happy to leave the talking to her, and she was even happier to oblige. They also between them - it pains me to admit this but in fairness it must be said - won the Cold War.

Sir Edward Heath was the only recent prime minister who was chilly towards the US. He was a committed European. He wanted to controvert his old adversary Charles de Gaulle, who had refused the UK entry into Europe because he considered that in any conflict between Europe and the US this country would take the American side. Over the threatened bombing of Iraq, Mr Tony Blair appears to be set on demonstrating that the former president of France was right after all.

Mr John Major did not get on specially well with Mr George Bush. But he got on particularly badly with Mr Bill Clinton, whose hostility was understandable enough. In the presidential election in which he had defeated Mr Bush, Mr Major had at the request of the Bush team instructed the then home secretary, Mr Kenneth Clarke, to have the Home Office files searched for material relating to his Oxford sojourn which might prove discreditable to Mr Clinton. Nothing was discovered. This was worse than a crime, as it may well have been. It was also a blunder.

Mr Blair's attraction for Mr Clinton was that he was not Mr Major. His additional attraction today is that he lends a certain spurious respectability both to the President personally and to his purposes in Iraq. Mr Clinton's attraction for Mr Blair is that it allows him to cavort on the international stage, now getting into aeroplanes, now getting out of them, appearing before us as a person of consequence and power.

It is all great nonsense. Mr Blair and Mr Robin Cook have so far advanced only the feeblest reasons for the use of force against Iraq. The situation in 1990-91 was entirely different. Then Iraq had invaded a neighbouring country and clearly had to be repulsed under the most elementary rules of international law (which do not, however, seem to apply to Indonesia).

Mr Cook and Mr Blair tell us that Saddam Hussein has to be punished because he is a dictator who gives his people a hard time. But the world is full of such unpleasant figures. The African continent is awash with dusky despots who, so far from being threatened with bombing, are endlessly flattered and indulged.

We are also told that Saddam possesses weapons of terrible destructive power. But so do many other countries, notably Israel. Indeed, one of its engineers is being imprisoned in the most inhuman conditions for revealing details of its nuclear programme. There is no international pressure to treat him better: still less to bomb Tel Aviv.

Some commentators have written that public opinion here is indifferent or bored or, even though interested, unable to come down on one side or the other. This is not my own impression, which is that the voters are by a majority of I should estimate four to one against Mr Clinton's proposed action. They are even more strongly opposed to Mr Blair's support for it. They would be happier if he emulated his predecessor and persuaded the US President to refrain from dropping bombs on anyone.