Leading article: Time to move beyond the special relationship

Monday 23 May 2011 00:00
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Nothing prompts anxious introspection among the British political classes better than a visit from the world's most powerful leader. Barack Obama will give a speech to both houses of Parliament on Wednesday and already speculation has begun over whether or not the President will use the phrase "special relationship" to describe the United States' partnership with Britain. This is a shame because there are much more important things to talk about with regard to US-British relations.

Our two nations are embroiled in a military operation in Libya in which there is no discernible exit strategy. Muammar Gaddafi's regime has steadied itself. The rebels in the east of the country are showing no signs of making progress. It is true that France and the UK have led this military action. But it would collapse tomorrow without the backing of the world's military superpower. There needs to be some clarification of the goals of this operation. Is the purpose of the air strikes and the deployment of military advisers to protect the rebels, or to take out Gaddafi?

There is tension between our two leaderships over the decade-long mission in Afghanistan. The UK is looking for a quicker pace of troop withdrawal in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the US seems unwilling to take the opportunity afforded by the deaths of the September 11 mastermind to withdraw. In his BBC interview yesterday President Obama spoke about guaranteeing women's rights in Afghanistan. Yet our own Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, argued last year that: "We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country". Both the White House and the Foreign Office say the target date for the withdrawal of troops is 2015. But what are the conditions on the ground that would allow that to take place?

Pakistan should also be on the agenda. The US and the UK are both significant aid donors to Islamabad. The discovery that Osama bin Laden was living right under the noses of the Pakistani military raises serious concerns about the relationship between elements in the Pakistani state and Islamist militants. What is the most sensible way of addressing those concerns? President Obama yesterday hinted that he would be willing to override Pakistani sovereignty as many times as necessary to take out threats to US citizens. But it would have been more comforting to hear him talk of his determination to bolster Pakistan's feeble democratic institutions.

The spotlight is back on the Israel/Palestinian situation after President Obama's speech last week reaffirming US support for a two-state solution based on Israel's 1967 borders. But there is a huge obstacle. Obama said yesterday that it's "very difficult" for Israel to sit across the negotiating table from Hamas, a group that has not renounced violence. Yet that is what a previous British government did with the IRA in the 1990s in order to get the peace process in Northern Ireland moving. That is something that David Cameron might usefully impress upon the US President this week.

The US and UK attitude to the broader uprising across the Arab world should also be examined. Our governments support democracy demonstrators in Syria, but ignore their repression in Bahrain. The continued backing for oil-rich and repressive Sunni monarchies is sheer hypocrisy. We seem to want democracy for our enemies in the region and tyranny for our friends.

These are the foreign-policy issues that should be the focus of this week's visit. If our leaders do those subjects justice there will be little time for trivial angst about the condition of the special relationship.

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