An ally, not a lapdog
Hard-line US supporters of war with Iraq are still writing of "solid" British support. Nothing could be further from the truth. For months, British public opinion has been shifting heavily against a war, and, as recent official statements demonstrate, Tony Blair's government is being forced to take heed, at least to the extent of insisting that the United States first genuinely seek a UN resolution demanding new inspections.
Nor will the appearance of consultation with Britain, or a role for the UN, necessarily make a difference if the Bush administration is seen to have already made up its mind.
The shift in British opinion is not just over Iraq; it is also a reaction to the range of Bush administration policies over the past 18 months. Basically, it is absurd to treat the views and interests of an ally with ostentatious and systematic contempt and then expect that the citizens of that ally will automatically support you in a crisis.
This does not reflect instinctive anti-Americanism, except in fading sections of the British left. On the whole, the British are more instinctively anti-European than anti-American. Nor does it reflect instinctive opposition to military action. On the contrary, the British take great pride in the fighting spirit of their armed forces.
Last fall, British opinion polls showed overwhelming majorities in support of British participation in the war against terrorism and the Afghan campaign. Today, they show large majorities as not just opposed to war with Iraq, but as strongly hostile to the Bush administration in general.
If British troops had suffered heavy losses in the war against Al Qaeda, Prime Minister Blair's leadership would not have been seriously threatened. If Britain participates in a war with Iraq and it goes wrong, Blair is finished. He will split his party, and lose his job. This is especially true because a war with Iraq has been publicly opposed by top serving and retired members of the British armed forces and security establishments.
British officials argue, quite rightly, that on a range of issues the close US-British alliance has had some effect on US policy. Those British concerns, fed into the US policy elite, have contributed both to the change in Bush administration attitudes toward Russia and to the growing weight of US elite opinion against a war with Iraq.
But this kind of influence is not visible to the British public. And when it comes to Iraq, British influence is also only one element in the massive international pressure being brought to bear concerning Bush administration plans. But where British wishes have been rejected by the Bush administration, this has been all too obvious to the British public: on the Middle East peace process, the International Criminal Court, the ABM Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, steel tariffs, and a range of other international issues. On almost every issue, the US has adopted a position of harsh nationalism. Inevitably, this calls up opposing nationalist sentiments in response even in Britain.
This behavior can't help calling the alliance into question over the long run. The argument that the military alliance with the US is vital to British security is still widely made in Britain. But even this has lost much of its force since the end of the Soviet threat.
Meanwhile, Europe, and Britain in particular, remains vitally important to US global power because of US bases on its soil.
There is a real risk that if the British public comes to see the US as engaged in reckless military adventures in the Middle East, then the alliance with the US will come to seem more of a danger than an advantage to Britain.
When it "consults" with the British and other governments about war with Iraq, the Bush administration needs to understand that their response will be shaped not just by their views of this issue, but also by the entire context of US relations with their countries.
Endless US references to Winston Churchill, and rhetoric of emotional attachment between two countries, without real content, can be used only so often before they begin to resemble the old Soviet language about "brotherly socialist nations."
If an alliance is to remain strong, it must embody both real mutual advantages and real mutual respect.
Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.