The past month has been grim for British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown on several fronts. The ruling Labor party has become
embroiled in what may become a huge scandal over illegal secret
campaign donations, that threatens to bring down its deputy leader
Harriet Harman. After years of boom, house prices are beginning to
fall in the U.K. and major British banks are being hit by the
fallout from the collapse of the U.S. sub prime mortgage market.
Confidence in the government's ability to handle the economy has
plummeted, and the Brown administration is also facing growing
public disillusionment with the state of British schools and health
care, as well as its handling of crime and immigration.
The latest YouGov poll for the London Daily Telegraph puts the rejuvenated Conservative party 11 points ahead, the biggest lead for the Tories since 1988, a loss of over 22 percentage points for Labor in the space of just two months. It is a stunning reversal of fortune described by leading British electoral expert Anthony King as "among the most devastating for any Government in the history of opinion polling." Gordon Brown's own personal approval rating has plunged to a miserly 23 percent, a figure that makes President Bush's standing in the polls look sky high by comparison.
On the international front things are going less than swimmingly for Brown too. To add to his domestic woes, the Conservative leader David Cameron was greeted by President Bush at the White House on Thursday -- a rare honor for an opposition leader, and a clear sign of growing frustration on this side of the Atlantic with the Brown government. Cameron (together with his Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague) also met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, delivered a strong speech on the future of the Balkans, and laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of America's war dead.
Cameron still has a mountain to climb before he can even hope to fill the shoes of illustrious predecessors such as Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill, and needs to adopt a clearer set of conservative principles in the process, but his trip to Washington was mature and statesmanlike, and a warning signal to Brown that the era of New Labor dominance may be coming to an end.
In his first few months in power, Gordon Brown has badly misplayed his hand with the Anglo-American alliance. Aside from a strong commitment to the British mission in Afghanistan, where over 7,000 British troops are currently based, he has sent conflicting signals on Iraq at a time when American troops have been making significant progress. Moreover, he has demonstrated little leadership over the Iranian nuclear question, and has strongly supported the new European Union Reform Treaty, which will undermine British sovereignty and the transatlantic alliance.
Brown's handling of the Iraq issue in particular has strained relations with Washington. After emphatically ruling out a timetable for the withdrawal of British forces in August, he dramatically reversed course in October, by announcing that the U.K. would reduce its troop strength by more than half by spring 2008. The decision to cut troop numbers may have been politically expedient with the prospect of a general election in the air, but it made no sense in military terms, and was a clear invitation to Iran to step into the vacuum left by the British in Basra and southern Iraq.
In addition, the disastrous appointment of the viscerally anti-American Mark Malloch Brown as minister for Africa, Asia, and the United Nations, sent a chill through the special relationship. The appointment of the former chief of staff to Kofi Annan was a huge slap in the face for White House, and sent a clear signal that the new Prime Minister was keen to demonstrate a sharp break with the close-knit Bush-Blair partnership. Just days into his new job, the gaffe-prone Malloch Brown gave an outspoken interview to the Telegraph in which he boasted that Britain and America were no longer "joined at the hip" prompting a swift slap down from Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He has also suggested that Britain might negotiate with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. More recently Malloch Brown has been the subject of intense media scrutiny over his taxpayer-funded grace and favor residence in London, a privilege also given only to the prime minister and the chancellor of the Exchequer in the current cabinet.
While some of Brown's appointments have been embarrassingly high profile, Gordon Brown himself has been more like the invisible man on the world stage. He appears strikingly disinterested in the gathering storm over Iran, the genocide in Darfur, and other major international crises of the day. He has been outclassed and outmaneuvered by his closest rival in Europe, the enigmatic French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose recent visit to Washington was a triumph for U.S.-French relations. The French leader delivered a brilliant speech to Congress that drew so many standing ovations that he almost had to blush. While 9 out of 10 Americans probably could not identify the British pPrime minister, a sizeable chunk would know who Sarkozy is.
In contrast, Brown's first visit to the White House in July was businesslike, but dull and underwhelming. While Sarkozy wowed Washington's policy elites last month, Brown largely bored them. Unlike his far more charismatic predecessor Tony Blair, Brown seems dispassionate about foreign policy, and looks more interested in the minutiae of interest rates and currency fluctuations than he is in projecting British power across the world. The Prime Minister seemed unenthusiastic about the Special Relationship, and made no serious attempt to make his mark in the United States. In contrast to many in his own party, Brown is not instinctively anti-American, but he has made no real effort to reach out to Britain's closest ally.
Brown's lackluster approach is not only bad for his personal standing, but for Britain and the Anglo-American alliance too. It's embarrassing for Britain to be out-hawked by the French of all people, not least when Paris has offered little of substance on the table but a great deal of spin. Brown must take a stronger stand on the Iranian nuclear issue, and the U.S. and U.K. must remain united in confronting the greatest threat of our generation.
The Prime Minister must play a bigger role in leading the campaign for European-wide sanctions against Iran, and Britain must do more to pressure the Germans in particular on the issue -- there are a staggering 5,000 German companies doing business in Iran. He must also make it clear that Britain will support the use of military force against Iran's nuclear facilities if the regime does not halt its drive to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The likely U.K. role in a military operation against Iran, probably involving the key strategic air base at the British protectorate of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as world-class Special Forces units and intelligence operatives, would be a significant one.
In terms of the quality of her armed services, and ability to deploy highly trained forces worldwide as well as significant diplomatic clout, Britain still remains the world's second most powerful nation (and fourth-largest economy), ahead of Russia, China, and her European competitors. Brown needs to run a foreign policy that reflects this, and not a weak-kneed one that looks more like Belgium's than that of a global power that just 60 years ago ruled over a quarter of the world. British defense spending must be significantly increased in order to deal with mounting threats to national security. The current spending level of 2.2-percent of GDP is pitifully inadequate, and stands at its lowest level since the 1930s. Realistically, Britain needs to be spending at least 3 to 4 percent of GDP to be able to handle several conflicts at the same time, from Afghanistan, to Africa and the Middle East.
Brown must also take a stronger stand on human rights issues, from Darfur to Burma to Zimbabwe, and demonstrate some real British leadership on these matters. The Foreign Office's decision to send Mark Malloch Brown to the December 8-9 EU-African Union summit in Lisbon, attended by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, instead of boycotting it altogether, is an act of political cowardice. Downing Street must send a message that there can be no welcome mat in Europe for leaders of odious tyrannies that brutalize and starve their own people. While the Brussels establishment continues to kowtow to despots in the name of diplomacy, Great Britain should refuse to play along.
With its long and distinguished history in the region, Britain must take a lead role in stopping the genocide in Darfur that has already claimed up to 400,000 lives at the hands of the murderous tyranny in Khartoum and its puppet Janjaweed militias. In addition to pressing for hard-hitting targeted sanctions aimed at the leadership of the Sudanese regime, London should work with Paris in exploring a possible Anglo-French military intervention to halt the genocide in Darfur, as well as building support for the establishment of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. The West cannot stand by while thousands more innocents are slaughtered or raped by marauding gangs of barbaric militias backed by the al-Bashir regime. The over-hyped U.N. peacekeeping mission has barely got off the ground, and will only contain African Union troops at the insistence of Khartoum, a surefire recipe for inaction and failure.
An increasingly dangerous world needs more British leadership, not less. It is unrealistic to expect the United States to shoulder all of the West's burdens, from combating the Iranian nuclear threat and defeating al-Qaeda, to standing up to acts of ethnic cleansing and mass murder. It is vital that London play a bigger role internationally alongside Washington in facing the major challenges of our time. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has so far been a crushing disappointment on the world stage, more of a lamb than a lion. This is a state of affairs that will only serve to weaken Britain's standing as a global power and undermine the future of the Special Relationship.
Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
First appeared in the National Review Online