When the gentleman looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Did you really mean it?” I knew he was deadly serious. I had just given a rather light-hearted speech at the annual dinner of a club of active and retired senior British officers, and my questioner — someone whom the Queen had knighted some years before — wanted to know if I was merely flattering my hosts or if I was sincere. I told him I stood behind my statement that America has too few allies it can always rely on, and that Britain was first among them. His question was evidence of the uneasy regard the Brits have for us and for the war against terror. It is very hard to criticize their apparent confusion, when we are so confused ourselves, and our president’s message is so garbled.
During that evening, and in meetings I had with senior Brits last week, I learned that we are separated from our oldest ally by more than our common language. (Please, no e-mails about Lafayette. He’s dead, and his successors are, well, French.) President Bush’s decisiveness, demonstrated best in the war in Afghanistan, is something the Brits simultaneously admire and worry about. That is perfectly understandable in a war that now looks to be another Hundred Years’ War. Neither we nor our allies have accepted the depth and length of the commitment we must make.
Britain sees the war on terror through lenses tinted by its colonial past, and its role in shaping the Middle East. A century ago, when the Ottoman Empire was in the last stages of unraveling, it was Britain and Russia’s competition for influence — complicated mightily by German provocation — that resulted in the formations of most of the nations that now exist. Jordan, for example, is less a nation than a British exercise in line drawing. Israel, after all, is the creation of the 1924 Balfour Declaration. Most of the senior British military have served in the Middle East or East Africa. Many remember their service there fondly. They have clear memories and a lasting perception of the Arabs — including the Palestinians — that leads to a very unfavorable opinion of Israel’s West Bank incursion. Their views coincide with those who criticize Israel for oppressing the Palestinians, and who see the need to force Israel to accept a return to its 1967 borders.
They do not do so without regard for Israel’s security. They see promise in the Saudi proposals, but only if Israel’s right to exist and its borders are guaranteed. They do not share my skepticism about any reliable peace being made with the same nations that now harbor Hamas, Hezbollah, because they think — wrongly, I believe — that the host nations will stop the terror once a Palestinian state is created. We are all victims of our own experience. The Brits’ experience with the Arab world leads them to trust the Arab nations more than we have, and more than they should.
The Brits credit American politics for more organization than it has ever had. They see the liberal media, including most television networks and the vast number of newspapers, as a fairly reliable barometer of American opinion. When they talk about the American media, they are talking about Dan Rather and the Washington Post. For that reason, they were very confused about the severe criticisms of Mr. Bush and Secretary Powell’s trip to kiss Arafat’s ring.
The gentlemen I spoke with had heard scattered reports about President Bush being criticized at home for the Powell trip and the rehabilitation of Yassir Arafat. But they uniformly attributed the criticism to the pro-Israel lobby in a way that only Pat Buchanan has done over here. Remember his remarks about Israel and its “amen chorus”? They were shocked — and a bit skeptical — when I described the real sources of the criticism. I explained that the harshest critics were found among the President’s most ardent supporters, and were published in magazines such as National Review and newspapers like the Washington Times, and broadcast on conservative talk radio such as the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows. They were very surprised and, I think, persuaded. The conversation then returned to the real cause of their nervousness: confusion about American leadership. My praise for the British sounded insincere to old military hands who don’t see any of the same from Mr. Bush. They wonder if his diplomatic attempt to seduce the Arab nations will leave him unable to prosecute a war on terror.
Britain’s professional warriors are hard to tell apart from ours in many ways. Having ruled much of the world in the 19th century, Britain was the center of the greatest war of the 20th. Its pros see things from that standpoint, usually with more patience than we have. But that patience does not extend to terrorism, for which they demand consistency. After the dinner, one gent came up to me at high speed and low altitude, wanting to know how I could label Arafat a terrorist when I didn’t so label the IRA. When I told him that the IRA were as much terrorists as Hamas or FARC or Abu-Sayyaf, his anger turned to agreement, and I led us both back to the port decanter.
The Brits aren’t whiners, but they rightly feel uncertain, and under-appreciated. The President should go to London and express our appreciation of Britain’s contribution before Parliament in much the same way Mr. Blair has spoken here. When he does so, he should return to the clarity of thought and speech that characterized him from last September until this past March. We are beyond the point at which we can afford to define terrorism differently from one nation to another. It is what it is, everywhere it is found. Saying that to the Brits, and to the world, can clear up the confusion while it is still a minor concern and before it becomes a matter of policy.