How Obama Is Losing Britain

While Bush got the U.K. into the Afghan war, Obama’s asking them to fight on—and the British are ready to leave. Richard Heller on how the war is testing Britons’ love for America’s new president.

Marco di Lauro / Getty Images

The British are losing faith in the Afghan war. If Barack Obama wants a continued British effort in Afghanistan, he must offer them clear signs of success within six months—and a realistic hope of a pullout.

In Britain’s latest opinion poll, nearly 60 percent of respondents wanted an early British exit from Afghanistan, against 36 percent who wanted the troops to stay. There are some special British factors behind those numbers—especially the low esteem of Gordon Brown’s government—but also some lessons for Obama, on the risks of fighting a war without a clear purpose or measurable success.

The British people are losing faith not just in the Afghan war but in the underlying assumptions that led them into it—particularly the idea that Britain is a great power because of its “special relationship” with the United States.

Afghanistan was almost forgotten in Britain, until the recent upsurge in British casualties: 16 dead in a fortnight. The number may not seem dramatic to Americans, but Britain has a small professional army, with a strong sense of family and community. Losses on that scale cause deep and shared grief.

One victim was a senior British officer, Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, a friend of Prince Charles—killed by the same roadside bomb as 18-year-old Trooper Joshua Hammond. Their deaths brought home the randomness of the Afghan war, one without a clear frontline, set piece battles, and visible victories.

Together with the public ceremonies for eight other dead soldiers, their deaths forced the British people to question whether they can ask so many young, motivated, and talented people to sacrifice themselves indefinitely in Afghanistan.

Fading British belief in the Afghan war is partly due to the collapse of faith in the government that is prosecuting it. In 50 years, I cannot remember any government so little respected by Britain’s armed forces and their families and friends, and by voters who care about national defense.

Senior officers brief openly against Gordon Brown and contradict his statements. Unofficial service Web sites and chat rooms complain constantly of shortages and express contempt for the ministers who deny them. Brown’s new defense secretary (the sixth in 12 years), a plodding Labour politician called Bob Ainsworth, has become a national joke in a few weeks.

Unwisely, Brown made a cult of Britain’s armed forces and tried to associate himself with the pride and respect they continue to elicit from the British people. A few weeks ago, Britain witnessed a new Brown-created festival called Armed Forces Day, with bands and parades. The prime minister has been harmed politically by the all-too-evident contrast between the official celebrations and young soldiers being maimed and killed in the worst country in the world for lack of the right equipment.

But even a popular leader with a respected defense team would find it very hard to sell the Afghan war to the British people. They have already heard too many explanations for British involvement in the country and none of them stack up.

Denying a base to terrorists: The British people know that terrorists have many other bases (including Britain itself). The 7/7 attack on London in 2005 had nothing to do with Afghanistan. Combating the drug trade: No one who lives in any British city believes that that the war on drugs is being won. Fighting for Afghan democracy and human rights: Nobody in Britain truly cares about Afghanistan, or whether its people are well or badly governed, and those who know anything about its present government have little respect for it.

The British people are losing faith not just in the Afghan war but in the underlying assumptions that led them into it, and the war in Iraq—particularly the idea that Britain is a great power because of its “special relationship” with the United States.

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If there is any such relationship, the British people have seen no reward from it—only subordination and sacrifice. Only a few days ago, in a little-noticed parliamentary answer, Brown was unable to name a single benefit to Britain from joining the Iraq war and occupation.

If Obama wants a guide to the present British mood, he should study the campaign for the British computer hacker Gary McKinnon, who faces extradition to the United States for the crime of embarrassing the Pentagon. Very significantly, this has been taken up by the Daily Mail, the newspaper of mainstream Middle England. The newspaper condemned the one-sided extradition treaty which Tony Blair agreed with the Bush administration (which essentially forces Britain on demand to yield up anybody for trial in the United States), and the treaty has become a symbol of British subjection.

Another significant sign was the recent poll that, for the first time, showed majority support for scrapping Trident, Britain’s (nominally) independent nuclear deterrent. Trident never had much military significance; it was cherished by mainstream political opinion as a symbol of British power, which guaranteed Britain a place at the (largely mythical) top table of nations.

A growing number of British voters no longer care about being on any top table, and they are certainly not prepared to spend taxes to prove it or ask their soldiers to die for the sake of prestige. They have seen no evidence of special British influence over the United States, or any other country. “Little Englander” parties made important gains in Britain’s recent European elections.

The British people hated fighting George W. Bush’s wars. They still love Barack Obama, but they do not like fighting his wars, either. American voters may make the same discovery, if they too see indefinite sacrifice without reward.

Richard Heller is a British author and journalist and former chief of staff to Denis Healey, deputy leader of the British Labour Party.