Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?
by Ian Sinclair
24 July 2019
Replying to a May 2019 tweet from Momentum which criticised ex-Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his leading role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Bloodworth countered “the war was led by the Americans and would’ve happened anyway” – i.e. without UK involvement.
Bloodworth, the former editor of Left Foot Forward website, likes to position himself on the left. He has certainly done important work highlighting the dark reality of low-wage Britain in his 2018 book Hired, but when it comes to foreign policy he is often a cheerleader for Western military interventions.
In 2013 Bloodworth proposed military action by the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education (he has since deleted the tweets where he stated this, though I wrote an article about it at the time). A year later Bloodworth called for the intensification of the US-UK military campaign against ISIS in Iraq.
Back to his May 2019 tweet: that the UK doesn’t have much influence over US foreign policy is a common belief (conversely, there is a broad understanding the US dominates and defacto directs UK foreign policy). However, it’s worth taking time to seriously consider the relationship because if the UK does have some level of influence on US foreign policy then a number of important opportunities and questions arise.
In his 2003 book Regime Unchanged: Why The War On Iraq Changed Nothing, Milan Rai argues Tony Blair was “politically indispensable” to the US drive to war on Iraq. He quotes Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from 2002 (Hagel went on to serve as Defense Secretary under President Obama): “I don’t think it is in the best interests of this country… or any of our allies for us to act unilaterally.” Polls provided more evidence of the importance of UK support, with an August 2002 survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and German Marshall Fund finding only 20 percent of Americans supported a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Echoing this, a January 2003 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 83 percent of Americans supported going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition, but without UN approval and allies this figured dropped to a third of the American public.
“Did we need the British troops to be there?” Andrew Card, President Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2003, rhetorically asked journalist Andrew Rawnsley in this 2010 book End of the Party. ”We needed them in the context of the world, but we didn’t necessarily need them in the context of the military action.”
Bloodworth’s dismissal of British influence on the US also ignores influence which may not have stopped the US war against Iraq but did impact the timetable for the invasion and how the war was eventually fought.
For example, it is likely the US and UK’s failed attempt to get United Nations authorisation for the war, a drawn out process which was likely a response to opposition in the UK and around the globe, delayed the invasion. This influence was illustrated by a 17 February 2003 Guardian report, which noted though “ministers and officials insisted the [15 February 2003] protests… would not delay military preparations for the war… a joint US-UK resolution authorising war… has been put on hold while Washington and London rethink their tactics.”
Indeed, Turkish-US relations at the time suggests less powerful nations can have big impacts on US foreign policy – as shown in the 2012 book Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons From the Iraq War. The US expected to stage the northern part of the invasion from Turkey, offering $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish government had decided to cooperate with the US. However, the US and Turkish governments had failed to factor in the Turkish public, which polls showed was massively opposed to the war. With the Turkish constitution requiring parliamentary support for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil, this public opinion was translated into a 1 March 2003 parliamentary vote against US troops being stationed in Turkey for the war. Blocked by Turkish democracy, the US had to change its plans at the last minute, with all its ground forces now entering Iraq from Kuwait in the south.
Beyond these constraining influences, the most compelling evidence of decisive UK influence on US foreign policy in recent years was the proposed military action on Syria in 2013.
Following claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, the US moved to conduct punishment airstrikes on Syrian government forces.
By 25 August the US Navy had five destroyers in position in the eastern Mediterranean ready for the attack, according to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report. In December 2013 the Guardian noted that Obama had let Cameron know that the US might take military action between 30 August and 1 September.
The UK government supported the US plans but, unexpectedly, on 29 August the House of Commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the commons”, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister David Cameron was immediately forced to concede that “the government will act accordingly” – i.e. the UK would not take part in the airstrikes.
And here is the crucial point: this momentous vote – the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 apparently – had a huge impact on the Obama Administration.
The next day US warships were “expecting launch orders from the president at between 3 pm and 4 pm”, with the Pentagon conducting a practice press conference about the airstrikes, noted the Wall Street Journal.
However, “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted. After speaking with advisors Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the airstrikes, telling aides “he had several reasons… including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.” With opposition building in Congress, the attack was cancelled in favour of a joint US-Russian plan to make sure the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles.
John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017. “The president had already decided to use force”, he noted, but “the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.”
Of course, contrary to Bloodworth’s certainty, we will never know for sure whether or not the US would have invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 without British support. Certainly if British support had been withdrawn days or weeks before the invasion date – Blair’s position was far more precarious than most people understood at the time – it seems likely the US’s momentum for war would have been too great to stop. But what if the UK had pulled out of the invasion plans in summer 2002? Or when Blair met Bush at Crawford in April 2002?
Bloodworth’s dismissal is ultimately a disempowering analysis. In contrast, the historical record shows, especially with regard to Syria in 2013, that the UK has had a significant influence on US policy. Moreover, it is also clear British public opinion and anti-war activism can, in the right circumstances, decisively impact not just UK foreign policy, but US foreign policy too.
It’s a hopeful and empowering lesson we would do well to remember the next time the drums of war start beating again.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.