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CAN THE ‘BIG SOCIETY’ NARROW THE GAP BETWEEN GLASGOW’S RICH AND POOR? – Pages 8-9
SEPTEMBER 2010 N o 1009
The end of the affair
,FL ORE NCE
paul klee – ‘Mask of Fear’ (1932)
Look. Then think
Bibi Aisha was on the cover of Time magazine last month, a young Afghan woman with no ears or nose; it is claimed that she was deliberately mutilated because of the Taliban (1). In Iran, Sakineh MohammadiAshtiani has been flogged, and sentenced to death by stoning, for adultery. Forces opposed to the Tehran regime rally in response to a much-printed photograph of her face. These images provoke thought, but about what? Not the ferocity of Afghan Islamists: the Soviets had already experienced that before the western powers armed the fundamentalists (with the blessing of the media). And nothing about the nature of President Ahmadinejad’s regime that we did not already know – electoral rigging by his supporters and punishments, including death, for his opponents.
These images may not make us think. They may actually prevent us from thinking, by – intentionally or not – using a powerful symbol (a mutilation to be avenged, an execution to be averted) to promote dangerous strategic plans (continuing the war in Afghanistan, imposing sanctions on Iran).The morepowerful the symbol, the less people will question the plan: the heart demands what the head might reject. Time claims that Bibi Aisha’s ordeal shows “what happens if we leave Afghanistan”. Yet it is clear from the 77,000 documents published by Wikileaks that the war waged by the western powers is a moral, political and military fiasco. It takes time to sift through thousands of pages of evidence; a sensational image has an immediate impact. But it is a photograph that fails to enlighten.
Advocates of the death penalty long justified their position by citing certain murder cases, preferably involving a child. CCTV cameras, routine drug tests, lengthy prison sentences, chemical castration for sex offenders: many measures that attack public freedoms – including that of freedom of movement without being monitored or recorded – have been adopted as a result of a sensational picture of a crime that the measure might have prevented. Of course, a “symbol” can also serve to support a just cause – think of Guernica or Abu Ghraib. But there is an inexhaustible supply of victims, and any impulse inspired exclusively by a symbolic image of this kind will inevitably give way to a surge of emotion in the opposite direction.
Will there be more mutilations “if we leave Afghanistan”? Well, “our” presence has not prevented the people of Afghanistan from being mutilated. The Taliban have plenty of pictures of civilians who have lost limbs or been killed by western missiles. Perhaps Time will publish one. Will it make the front cover? And what caption will it carry?
T ra n slate d by Bar b ara W ils on
(1) As an American journalist who knows Bibi Aisha explained, it was actually her father-in-law who disfigured her in revenge for an affront to his “honour”; the village elders approved later. See Ann Jones, “Afghan Women Have Already Been Abandoned”, Thenation.com, 12 August 2010.
inside this issue Canada: armed and ready to actPage 3 Why Goldman Sachs was always destined to land on its feet P age 4 Ivory Coast blackouts mean more than just a broken power plant P age 6 U ncovered: Israel’s desert base spies on the world with impunity P age 7
Serbia’s K osovo problem P age 10 Black Sea: claims, conflicts, and a fragile and finite resource P age 12 P alestinian activists have assumed the identity of A vatar’s Na’vi people P age 15 Gossip Girl: what started as a critique is now a celebration of rich kids P age 16
It’s now clear that Obama and his White House don’t care much about E urope, and still less do they care about the traditional ties between the U S and the UK . So what happens to British foreign and defence policy?
The term “special relationship” is usually attributed to Winston Churchill who used it in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946. (In the same speech he first referred to the “iron curtain” that would bisect Europe.) But others before had celebrated this bilateral relationship, strengthened in both world wars. Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, declared in 1917: “We both spring from the same root ... Are we not bound together forever?” Almost a century later, Tony Blair emphasised a different aspect, telling Britain’s ambassadors, gathered in London on 7 January 2003: “We are the ally of the US not because they are powerful, but because we share the same values.”
Although each new prime minister ritually reaffirms the “special relationship” as the foundation of foreign policy and national defence (with the exception of the Conservative Edward Heath, in office from 1970-74), it has lost its status as a comfortable myth tinged with nostalgia. The new strategic priorities of President Barack Obama, and the determination of the British prime minister David Cameron to distinguish himself from the osmotic relationship between Tony Blair and George W Bush, make it necessary to re-evaluate its terms.
The special relationship – which more specifically refers to defence and security aspects, notably intelligence – is part of a larger economic and cultural context. Britain has traditionally been the preferred recipient of US foreign direct investments (FDI), which reached about $400bn in 2007. In 2008, 621 of the 1,774 FDI projects in the UK were US in origin (1). Total British FDI in the US is nearly as high, with the US market the main outlet for British exports: $55.5bn. An equivalent amount should be added for services transferred to the US. When Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, indefinitely postponed the UK joining the eurozone, he cited the similarity between the US and UK economic cycles.
The UK is a privileged partner of the US, but it is also conscious of its unequal status, as the expression “junior partner” indicates. It maintains a diplomatic delegation of 417 on US soil, 248 based in Washington (2) – second only to that in India (505). This can be explained by the US’s importance in British strategic thinking. But it is also due to the density of secondary decision-making centres, think tanks and pressure groups, in which the British try to assert their interests. British leaders justify their attachment to the asymmetrical relationship, which they consider an indispensable means of legitimising Britain’s status as a great power, by the influence they claim to have over US decision-makers.
Civil servants from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and British military personnel are traditionally integrated into the decision-making centres of the US military establishment. In 2005 MoD representatives were for the first time associated with the preparation of the US quadrennial defence review, while others have been detached to the US naval headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia. The size of the UK contingent in Afghanistan – about 10,000 – has made it easier to nominate a British general to the post of deputy to the commander-in-chief of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
While the UK and US clearly cooperate on an operational level, questions might be asked about the UK’s ability to influence US choices in international policy. Blair managed to get Bush’s agreement to try to seek UN endorsement before launching the military intervention in Iraq, but failed to persuade him to find a solution to the Palestinian problem or ratify the Kyoto protocol.
Obama’s arrival was taken as a sign that the relationship would be rebalanced and the willing vassalage of the Blair years was over: the British realised that Obama did not accord any particular importance to the relationship. By calling himself “America’s first Pacific president”, Obama meant to show that the Asia Pacific zone was at the heart of his preoccupations. Europe, freed from the Soviet threat, is no longer a priority in US strategic thinking, and Washington is content with the European Union’s desire to assert its own identity in foreign and defence policy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have celebrated the virtue of the special relationship at her meeting with the Labour foreign secretary David Miliband in July 2009, when she remarked that the relationship was a factor in strengthening peace, progress and prosperity not only “for our two peoples” but for the whole world. But that should be seen as nomore than an expression of de rigueur diplomatic courtesy. The UK government had not failed to notice that two weeks earlier, in her speech to the Council for Foreign Relations, Clinton had not once mentioned the UK when referring to the US’s historical allies.
Since then, trivial but symbolic events have confirmed that the relationship with Britain is becoming less special: the restitution to the British of a bust of Churchill, which adorned the Oval Office during Bush’s term but was promptly returned to the British embassy by
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Jean-Claude Sergeant is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne N ouvelle (Paris 3) University, Paris