In their joint March 12, 2012, Washington Post op-ed British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama write:
“As leading world economies, we … stand with our European friends as they resolve their debt crisis…”
Stand with our European friends is an artfully crafted phrase that should have been removed by the State Department from this op-ed. America may say we stand with our European friends, because the United States is not part of Europe. But Britain is in fact part and parcel of an integrated Europe by virtue of its membership in the European Union. If Britain wishes to continue playing this in-Europe-but-out-of-Europe game it is free to do so. But implying American support for the stance is a mistake.
An exaggerated interpretation of the special relationship has led to Britain being seen as America’s bridge into Europe. As a result, America has viewed the integration of Europe and the development of the European Union through Anglo-tinted glasses, a view that has proven to not be in the best interests of the United States.
The exaggerated and sentimental view of the special relationship was, I believe, a prime contributor to America’s involvement in the quagmire of Afghanistan.
Count me on the side of those who believe it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for the Bush administration to launch the invasion of Iraq had Britain not supported it. Think back to those momentous weeks in 1993 when public opinion in America was being molded to support the unnecessary and damaging war against Iraq. How different might America, the Middle East, and the world be today if then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair had refused to support the invasion and spoken out against it.
The invasion of Iraq over the objections of some of America’s oldest and largest European allies, robbed the United States of the chance to complete the job of stabilizing Afghanistan. The results of this calamitous decision continue to unfold nine years later in the death and damage that has and continues to be visited on Americans, Britons, and Afghans.
Dean Acheson, one of America’s great Secretaries of State, was unusually prescient in recognizing the importance of Europe’s integration, and the danger in Britain overemphasizing its “special relationship” with the United States in lieu of its role as a full member and leader of Europe. The dangers Acheson recognized may well have reached their zenith with Britain’s unflinching support for the American decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.
Why would Britain, America’s closest ally, the co-inventor of modern Iraq, with intimate knowledge of, and deep historical ties to, the Middle East, and with its powerful understanding of Arabs and Islam, not have influenced its American ally’s actions more wisely? Acheson would have immediately understood.
“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role, that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based primarily on a ‘special relationship with the United States.. is about played out.”
Americans have a sentimental attraction for the British, as they should. It was after all at one time the mother country, and has been a steadfast ally through thick and thin. But It is time to heed Acheson’s wise counsel and stop exaggerating America’s special relationship with Britain.
Sarwar Kashmeri is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program and the author of “NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete?” This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post.