Why Britain's Affair with the U.S. Is Over

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Matt Dunham / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with G-20 summit host British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the ExCel center in London

If anyone still doubts that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were the closest of allies, the text of a July 2002 note from the U.K. Premier to the U.S. President, revealed in a new book, should dispel any lingering skepticism. "You know, George, whatever you decide to do [about Iraq], I'm with you," Blair assured his friend.

The End of the Party, an account by British political commentator Andrew Rawnsley of how Britain's Labour government came to squander a huge popular mandate to face possible defeat in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, identifies a multiplicity of contributory factors. Blair's unwavering determination to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with a martial U.S. is prominent among them.

The damage may be permanent. On March 28 an influential cross-party committee of MPs in Britain weighed in on the wider impact of that policy. "The perception that the British Government was a subservient 'poodle' to the U.S. Administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas," states a report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. "This perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the U.K."

The committee goes further, with a call to jettison the term special relationship as ruthlessly as colonists once dumped tea into Boston Harbor. The expression was coined by no less a person than Winston Churchill in 1946 to describe the intricate skeins of mutual interest, cultural heritage and sometimes gloopy sentiment that bind Washington and London. Globalization and "shifts in geopolitical power" mean that both countries are inevitably forming new and deep alliances with other players, and talk of a "special relationship" is increasingly misleading, says the report. "The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K."

There is no doubt the U.S. and Britain remain important strategic partners. But the U.K.'s one-sided obsession with the relationship has made it overestimate its influence in some areas and fail to assert itself in others. Since last July, a public inquiry into the Iraq war chaired by former civil servant John Chilcot has been hearing testimony from British politicians, military chiefs and officials involved in the decision to go to war and the planning for its aftermath. Much of the testimony so far has laid bare the way in which Washington called the shots, often ignoring British advice and excluding British diplomats and military commanders from discussions. Chilcot and his fellow committee members plan to travel to the U.S., probably in May, to interview members of the Bush Administration and U.S. military figures of similar heft to the inquiry's British witnesses, who have included not only Blair but also Britain's serving Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

If Chilcot finds Bush and other senior U.S. figures reluctant to submit to such a process, he shouldn't be surprised. The special relationship has always been full of rejections and failed passes. Blair was initially rebuffed by his then special friend President Bill Clinton when he pressed the White House to commit ground troops to Kosovo in 1999. In 2003 the U.K. agreed to extradition terms that made it easier to extradite a Briton to stand trial in America than a U.S. citizen to face the British courts. Two years ago, evidence surfaced contradicting U.S. denials that a U.S. air base on the British dependency of Diego Garcia had been used for extraordinary renditions of terrorism suspects in 2002. "We share the disappointment that everybody has about what's actually happened," said Brown, who succeeded Blair in 2007, after his government made a public apology.

A passionate Atlanticist, Brown confided to TIME in an interview two years ago, "I love the States." He added, "America is still a beacon to the world for its defense of liberty and support for individual opportunity." His two main parliamentary opponents, who will square off against Brown in elections that are expected in May, have both indicated to TIME that they will recalibrate London's approach to Washington. "Blair was too much the new friend telling you everything you want to hear, rather than the best friend telling you what you need to hear," says Conservative chief David Cameron. What America needs is "the candid friend, the best friend." Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg, speaking to TIME in February, was even more outspoken, deploring "this almost unseemly knee-bending allegiance to the White House."

Polls suggest that Britons may return a hung parliament, but whoever Downing Street's next incumbent proves to be, he's likely to encounter in Washington a bracing lack of sentimentality toward London. David Manning, a former British ambassador to the U.S., told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that President Obama "comes with a very different perspective. He is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia and who had a Kenyan father. The sentimental reflexes, if you like, are not there." The committee concluded — and many observers of U.S.-U.K. relations agree — that Britain can only benefit from shedding those reflexes too.