The Toothless Lion
By: Douglas Stone
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, December 18, 2008
After more than five years in support of the Coalition in Iraq, the British Army is finally folding its hand. The Brits gave up on their remaining responsibilities in Basra many months ago, retreating to a base outside the city, and have continued a drawdown that has cut their forces to approximately 4,000 – with Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicating that the rest will probably leave early in the new year.
In retiring from Basra, the British Army essentially handed over the city to local Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs. When the Iraqi government decided early this year to take back the city with a joint Iraqi-American effort, the Brits remained at their airport base, where their role was largely that of spectators.
Beyond merely local failure in Iraq, the retreat from Basra and the gradual drawdown of British forces is important for what it says about the nation most Americans still regard as our most important ally: Whatever its glorious history – whether on land, on the sea, or in the air – British military capacity today is such a shadow of its former self as to be scarcely a factor on the international scene.
The reason is two-fold: the military’s lack of resources and the lack of will on the part of its civilian masters. Indeed, the lack of resources is a function of a degraded resolve among increasingly pacifist Britons, which prominently includes a substantial part of the ruling Labour Party but also important elements of the Conservative Party, not to mention large segments of the media and cultural elite.
This reluctance to use force to defend national interests has been developing since World War II, and particularly since the beginning of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964. It was only momentarily reversed during the Falklands War by the special nature of Mrs. Thatcher’s personality and politics, as she almost single-handedly willed the country to a successful outcome.
But that was the exception that proves the rule. Parliament has refused for more than 40 years to spend what is necessary to have a military that is even close to being proportionately as strong as the United States, and the country lacks the spirit and resolve to make the sacrifices in blood and treasure necessary to take on a difficult fight.
The British retreat in Iraq was been made possible by Brown’s ascent as Prime Minister in 2007 and is a measure of both the strength and weakness of his position in British politics. As the leader of a new administration, he was more capable than Tony Blair to alter Britain’s commitment to an unpopular war. At the same time, he was more sensitive to a largely antiwar press and Labour Party as he consolidated his power, tried to establish a reputation, and worked through months of scandal and failure that compromised his authority.
Brown has suggested that Britain’s work is done in Iraq. He and his flaccid Foreign Minister, David Miliband, are emphasizing the importance of the NATO effort in Afghanistan over the struggle in Iraq and offering soft soap and rationalization to cover its failure to withdraw pari passu with its American allies.
The threat of failure in Iraq remains as great as that in Afghanistan. However, there is political cover in focusing on Afghanistan insofar as it was the home of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden at the time of September 11, and there is the fig leaf of the International Security Assistance Force (built around a core of NATO nations) effort in Afghanistan, where Britain does not stand out as the lone substantial ally of America, as it does in Iraq.
While Brown has been PM for less than two years, it shouldn’t be forgotten that for more than 10 years he was effectively Tony Blair’s second-in-command, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. For reasons peculiar to his relationship to Blair, he was probably the most influential Chancellor since Lloyd George or even Gladstone and was at least as responsible as Blair for starving the British military down to a size that now matches the anemic will to use it.
While Britain is only one-fifth the size of the United States and has a smaller per capita GDP, the resources it commits to its military are even much smaller proportionately than those of the U.S. at approximately 2.3 percent of GDP (down from 4.2 percent in 1990), compared to the nearly 4 percent of GDP spent by the U.S.
Among the populace there is little of the support for the military. Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has publicly lamented that the British public does not have nearly the respect and appreciation for its armed forces as there is in the U.S. for the American military. At one RAF base, flyers have been told not to wear uniforms when they go into town, while in Southern England members of the public objected to military amputees using a public swimming pool.
Among professional observers in the UK, the British military is widely considered to be overstretched, even with no more than 12,000 troops combined in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it is often short of equipment; the equipment doesn’t work properly; or it is out of service. As the Brits might say, the proposition that Great Britain remains a serious military power has been tested to destruction.
Rhetorical support is useful; a reliable vote in the UN even more so. But hard power still counts, and as events in Iraq have demonstrated, Britain’s has neither the will nor the way to make a substantial and sustained contribution to American efforts in any kind of serious military operation.
What they do have in abundance among the leftist elites is the gall to presume that Britain has some special right to offer guidance to the United States when its role in the world is dwarfed by our own; that Blair was Bush’s poodle when Britain should have been treated as something close to an equal partner, despite its middling power status – to advise and temper the impetuosity of the gangly adolescent power of the U.S., as the Greeks offered their wisdom to a raw but powerful Roman Empire.
Like the Grand Old Duke of York, the British marched up the hill in Iraq and marched back down again -- all to little avail. But their failure in Iraq is no trifling story: it’s a brutally plain statement of Britain’s inability to commit resources and muster the political will necessary to engage in controversial and dangerous military operations.
The British bulldog is no more, its military scarcely rising to the ferocity of a lap dog. A hard saying, perhaps, but something we need to keep in mind in assessing the value of our British ally in potential future conflicts. And not least in understanding the implications of the so-called “Special Relationship.”
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