Roger Cohen’s lament for the “special” relationship is as absurd an overreaction to yesterday’s Syria vote as one can imagine:
When Britain opts for the sidelines with Germany, leaving an American president to look to France and Turkey for support in holding Bashar al-Assad accountable for breaking the world’s taboo on chemical weapons, there is little or nothing special left. Rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its ally, Britain has turned its back.
The first thing to understand about the “special” relationship is that it doesn’t exist in the real world. Yes, the U.S. and Britain have close ties and cooperate on a wide range of issues, and Britain has frequently sided with the U.S. when it has come to the use of force overseas. Notable and important exceptions to that cooperation are, of course, Suez and Vietnam, which are respectively the two biggest blunders that Britain and the U.S. made during the Cold War. It would have been insane for Britain to go to war in Southeast Asia for the supporting a disastrous U.S. war there, and Washington would have been absolutely wrong to support the attack on Egypt. Somehow the alliance–which had nothing to do with attacking anyone–survived these episodes. It will suffer no real damage from one vote on Syria.
When people gush about the “special” relationship as Cohen does, they are insisting that Britain and the U.S. should always go to war together, and Britain should always support U.S. actions no matter how irrelevant they are to British interests. This is the warped and destructive form of the relationship that prevailed when Blair was Prime Minister, and which has continued more or less in the same way under Blair’s successors. It is very unhealthy, and naturally breeds resentment in Britain and encourages Washington to expect that Britain will going along with its plans no matter what they are. When U.S. and British interests converge, it may make sense for Britain to support what the U.S. wants to do, but assuming that Britain must automatically or reflexively endorse a U.S. plan makes the relationship a very one-sided and damaging one for Britain.
As far as the supporters of a given military intervention are concerned, allies are not allowed to dissent from it. This was the poisonous attitude toward European allies that opposed the invasion of Iraq, which did so much to damage ties with France and Germany in the last decade, and Cohen is doing much the same thing in heaping scorn on Britain because the House of Commons voted in a way that he didn’t like. It’s a destructive but also very silly response to Parliament’s rejection of an exceptionally weak case for war.