Camp X-ray row:
Too big to take good advice
January 23, 2002
By Max Hastings
It has become a litmus test of a good 21st century Brit, making sure that one is always nice about America. If we hear a dinner party guest blabbing contempt for the cowardice of Hollywood stars, the provincialism of Washington, the ignorance of George Bush, the banality of most of what lies between the east and west coasts, we blush. The British are now beyond all that. Our grandfathers used to say rude and crass things about Yanks, when the British were still learning to live with the fact that the US had taken over from us as Top Nation.
Today, it is no longer cool to say that Americans are naive. In the Gulf War, liberal journalists like Robert Fisk, who heaped scorn upon America's military incompetence, were made to look ridiculous. We have learned to live with the simple fact that the United States is the richest, most dynamic and effective society on earth. We have learned to be grateful for the extraordinary qualities of the world's only superpower.
Well, yes, maybe. All the above was true three months ago.
Today, however, some of it is under strain. These past few weeks, as the drama in Afghanistan has unfolded, even some quite grown-up Brits have been heard to murmur. If the British Army had been responsible for finding Osama bin Laden, we'd have got him by now. If it had been us who still possessed military and naval dominance over the globe, we would have handled this better. If it had been us who were leading the world's democracies in a struggle against international terrorism, we would not have ended up with an image of freedom as crass as that of hooded and manacled prisoners, squatting at the feet of their captors.
In reality of course, many of these sentiments are nonsense. History tells us that when Britain was Top Nation, we upset the world by our arrogance as least as much as do the Americans today. Young Winston Churchill was horrified by Kitchener's ruthless neglect of the Dervish wounded after Omdurman. The world looked on in dismay as Boers died in their thousands in British concentration camps. General Dyer addressed dissent at Amritsar in 1919 by mowing down Indian demonstrators in their hundreds.
So we must start any debate about American treatment of its prisoners in Cuba by admitting that the British are in a weak position to lecture the US on how much better we did it. All Top Nations have behaved badly when they have thought they could get away with it. American conduct today has a higher content of brutal honesty and a lower ingredient of hypocrisy than that of many other countries.
Where it is most painful to us, perhaps, is that some British people who should know better have continued to delude themselves that we can exercise an influential, restraining voice in Washington.
Six weeks ago, I wrote that the Afghan crisis had delivered a salutary lesson to Tony Blair. He has become the latest in a long line of British prime ministers to discover that, when the chips are down, Britain's influence on the US is something between modest and non-existent. America does its own thing for its own reasons, according to its own timetable.
It did so in two world wars. It remains uncertain whether President Roosevelt would have been able to get America to fight Germany - even after Pearl Harbor - had not Hitler obliged us by declaring war on the US. American policy in Korea, in Vietnam, towards the Soviet Union and now towards international terrorism has been influenced intermittently, and on the margin, by the views of friendly foreign nations.
But Britain is cut out of all the big decisions.
A Los Angeles Times columnist mocked Tony Blair in print only last week, for having been foolish enough to suppose that it might be otherwise. Today, while European newspapers fill pages with reports and debate about the condition of the al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba, in the US this issue is not being seriously argued about. The prisoners, most Americans believe, are being given more rights than the victims of 9/11 ever were. That is all the bastards can expect.
Tony Blair may care about seeing that every Afghan gets a free laptop and condoms. George Bush is focused exclusively upon American interests, American security.
The United States is exercising the full weight of its power against people whom it considers to possess the standards of savages and to be as dangerous as a cornered bear. And Washington is in no mood to listen to lectures about this from anyone, whether Tony Blair or the Sultan of Swat.
The consequence, of course, is that while the West may not lose the anti-terrorist struggle, we become diminishingly likely to win it.
It has been apparent for weeks that America's will to deal toughly with Premier Sharon of Israel, to drive forward the political process in the Middle East, has ebbed dramatically. Yet military success in Afghanistan - and it is a very qualified success, as long as bin Laden remains a free man - will count for nothing, unless the Palestinian issue is effectively addressed.
Now, on top of all this, in its hubris, America is foolish enough to allow Donald Rumsfeld to bluster crudely about US treatment of its prisoners and to present a propaganda image to the world of captives deprived of normal legal rights which must be worth at least 10,000 recruits to al-Qaeda.
It is not that the prisoners deserve more humanity - many have been responsible for terrible deeds in their careers as terrorists. It is that the United States deserves better of itself than to treat them in this way. It is deeply dismaying for the rest of us, who want to stand four-square with the greatest of all democracies, now to find ourselves witnessing American actions which cause us to recoil. By all its actions since September 11, the US has shown its determination to act alone, whatever lip-service it pays to allies. By its treatment of the prisoners in Cuba, it risks finding itself isolated from the rest of us, whether it chooses to or not.