May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Britain Must Become Great Again

The unfortunate decision by British defense chiefs not to send Prince Harry to Iraq will be interpreted as an act of weakness by Al Qaeda as well as Iranian-backed insurgent groups in Iraq. Harry, the third in line to the throne, was due to be dispatched to the war-torn country this summer with his regiment the Blues and Royals, but will no longer be going due to "a number of specific threats." This dramatic reversal by Britain's Ministry of Defence will be a huge propaganda boon for terrorist groups operating in Iraq, who will claim that they have forced a change in British policy. It will only serve to embolden the enemy, who will sense indecisiveness in London, and will push harder to drive out Britain's 7,000 troops in southern Iraq. This sets a very dangerous precedent for British foreign policy, with an important decision dictated by threats from barbaric terrorist groups.

To his great credit, Prince Harry had expressed a strong desire to serve in Iraq, and wished to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who fought with the Royal Navy in the Falklands War. The young prince demonstrated leadership and courage, qualities so badly needed today. Prince Harry understood the risks involved in going to Iraq, and was willing to sacrifice his life for his country. His commitment is a shining example at a time when anti-war sentiment is continuing to rise.

The extraordinary about-turn by Britain's top brass has all the hallmarks of a political intervention by Whitehall, as power ebbs from Prime Minister Tony Blair to his anointed successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The timing of the announcement, just days after Blair gave his resignation speech, reflects an immediate shift in the balance of power in Downing Street. It does not bode well for the future of British policy on Iraq, post-Blair, and could well be an early indication of a less hawkish line on the part of the new Prime Minister. Brown is facing intense pressure from the left-wing of the Labour Party to draw down the British presence in Iraq and the prospect of Prince Harry being targeted and even killed in Iraq by insurgents was probably seen as too big a political risk by Brown's advisers.

Projecting Weakness in the Face of Global Threats

The order by General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, not to send Prince Harry to Basra will further fuel the impression in the Middle East that the West does not have the stomach to fight Islamic extremism. It followed the disastrous Iranian hostage affair that left Britain humiliated by the ruthless regime in Tehran, which kidnapped and paraded 15 British sailors on world television with no ramifications for those responsible. Brutal tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad successfully taunted Britain for two weeks without paying any penalty. The British Government's response to Iranian intimidation was weak-kneed and lackluster, and projected a feeble image on the world stage. The response of the British public was little better, with an astonishing 26% of respondents in a Sunday Telegraph poll on the crisis declaring that Britain should apologize to Iran, with just 7 percent backing preparations for military action.

All of this begs the question: is Britain now a soft touch, a larger version of Belgium or Sweden, with an increasingly pacifist approach to international affairs? Has Britain's leaders lost the mettle for the kind of long-term commitment that is required to defeat the biggest threat of our time, Islamic fascism? The answer fortunately is no on some key fronts as the continuing British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates. Britain is playing a lead role in operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and will boost its troop numbers there from 5,500 to 7,000 this summer.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Britain is not pulling out of Iraq, but is withdrawing just 2,000 of its troops, many of whom will be posted to Afghanistan. Unlike the U.S. Congress, the British House of Commons has steadfastly refused to vote for a timetable for the full withdrawal of British forces, and reports indicate that Britain may maintain a base west of Basra until 2012. Indeed, there is a clear difference between the resolve of Britain's Parliament regarding Iraq and the defeatist approach of anti-war elements on Capitol Hill.

In contrast to the Spanish government of José Luis Zapatero in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Madrid bombings, the Blair government refused to be intimidated by the Al Qaeda attacks on London in July 2005 that left 52 people dead, and there was no withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Whether a Gordon Brown-led Labour Party reverses this position remains to be seen, but the existing stance of the British government on the War on Terror is commendably tough, and in stark contrast to the appeasement approach of much of her European neighbors.

There is however a very real danger that the UK will end up in the next decade as a mid-ranking military power with an aversion to the use of force, and an increasing willingness to negotiate with, rather than confront terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror, with its foreign and defence policy constrained by Brussels as well as a vociferously anti-American public. The prospect of a 21st Century Britain that is incapable or unwilling to stand shoulder to shoulder with its closest ally the United States, is a nightmare scenario for strategists in Washington, but nevertheless a real one.

Rebuilding British Power on the World Stage

The world needs a confident, powerful Britain, which stands as a warrior nation in the defence of freedom and Western civilization. There are a number of steps that Britain must take to strengthen her position as a global power, and ensure that she is able to face, confront and defeat the threats she faces. It will take the same kind of sacrifice and visionary leadership that defined the British nation at the height of the Victorian Empire and the dark days of World War Two. To all intents and purposes, Britain and America are at war globally against a vicious enemy and ideology that seeks their destruction.

First, future British governments must undertake a commitment to rebuilding military capacity. Britain spends just 2.2% of GDP on defense, the lowest level since the 1930s. Less money should be spent on a vast welfare state and more resources allocated to national security. The UK should spend at least 3% of GDP on defence, and ideally strive for a goal of 4%of GDP if it wishes to project military power worldwide. Britain should have the capacity to take on dangerous rogue regimes such as Iran, and be able to defeat them militarily. Never again should British personnel be subject to the kind of ritual public humiliation they received at the hands of the tyrannical regime in Tehran.

Second, Britain must assert its national sovereignty, and completely withdraw from the European Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and the European Convention on Human Rights, all of which weaken Britain's capacity to shape her own future and defend herself. As Lady Thatcher recommended in her seminal work Statecraft, the UK must renegotiate key treaties with the EU and take back powers that have been handed over to Brussels, including control of her own seas. As Tony Blair discovered, it is impossible for Britain to be both America's closest ally and part of a politically and economically integrated Europe. Ultimately a choice will have to be made.

Third, Britain must defend and prioritize the Anglo-American Special Relationship. The U.S.-UK alliance is the most successful partnership of modern times, and it is in the interests of both London and Washington that its long-term protection be a top priority. British military weakness and rising anti-Americanism threaten the future of the relationship, and addressing both is crucial if the alliance is to survive. The Special Relationship operates as a two-way street that enhances both America's and Britain's ability to project power internationally, and defend against global threats. Its collapse would significantly weaken both the United States and Britain, and a world devoid of Anglo-American leadership would be a far more dangerous place.

The spectacle of the British nation being humiliated at the hands of the Mullahs of Tehran, or intimidated by the threats of savage terrorist groups in Iraq must never be repeated. Britain has been a dominant force on the world stage for several centuries, but her position as a great power and her willingness to act like one is starting to be eroded by punishing defense cuts, the rise of European integration, a declining education system, the growth of home-grown Islamic extremism, and spiraling public animosity toward the United States. Britain faces a stark choice in the coming years of sinking into mediocrity in an increasingly centralized European Union run by unelected bureaucrats, or acting as a powerful global leader alongside the United States and other English-speaking nations such as Australia and Canada. For the future security of the free world the choice has to be the latter.

Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in Human Events