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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Washington diary: Best of friends?
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Britain's new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, looks like the Harry Potter of diplomacy, without the glasses and the cape.

David Miliband
David Miliband sees the bond between Britain and the US as vital

He is 42, but could pass for 35. He is bound to get carded in Washington DC - that is, have to show some proof of age in a bar.

But by the standards of his over-achieving family, he is actually quite old.

His brother, Ed Miliband, also sits in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet. He rejoices in the grand title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and deals with Labour party policy. He is a mere 37-and-three-quarters.

The older Miliband has a good joke about this disproportionate presence of one family at the high table of British government.

If I ever leave politics, he likes to quip, I will be the first person to say that I have left to spend less time with my family.

Granite certainties

The elder Miliband has a sense of humour. But when it comes to the nature of Britain's famed "special relationship" with America, the froth melts away to be replaced by granite certainties.

British troops withdrawing from Basra Palace
Britain is to cut its troop numbers in Iraq to 2,500 by next spring

In an interview on Tuesday, I put it to him that there were a whole range of issues on which Britain and the US now disagree.

On Iran, President George W Bush conjures up World War III and Dick Cheney speaks about "serious consequences" if the Iranian regime continues to enrich uranium.

In Iraq, the Bush administration is trying to secure another US$200bn.

In the spring, the Brits will halve their contingent in the south of Iraq, leaving them with only about twice as many troops as the private security firm Blackwater.

On the Middle East, the Brits favour talking - eventually - to Hamas and to the Syrians. The US does not.

Unique intimacy

And yet, David Miliband sees not even a nano-hint of fissures between these two countries, whose special bond he calls the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

Tony Blair and George Bush
Tony Blair nurtured the idea of a unique closeness with Mr Bush

I asked him whether the whole concept of a special relationship might not create an impossible burden on what is really a marriage of occasional convenience across the pond. Why not just call it a relationship with special moments?

It's not our fault, the youthful minister replied. It's the media that keeps banging on about special relationships.

I beg to differ. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair loved to nurture the impression that there was a unique intimacy between London and Washington. It gave him, he felt, an advantage over Paris and Berlin.

Today, loyalty has become a strait jacket, leaving no wriggle room for even gentle disagreement

As a senior British diplomat put it to me after the 9/11 terror attacks: "The world is a jumbo jet. The Americans are in the cockpit and in first class. And we are the only ones in club. Everyone else is in economy."

It is, of course, questionable whether this proximity to the pilot has allowed the Brits to steer the jumbo in other directions.

On Iraq, the Middle East and just about every other issue, the cockpit door on Britain's imaginary jumbo has remained firmly shut even to those special friends in club class. Just like on a real plane in fact.

Hugs and shrugs

For Tony Blair, his friendship with George W Bush turned into a fatal attraction.

Gordon Brown is more cautious, even though by instinct and habit he is actually far more pro-American.

UK PM Gordon Brown (left) and US President George W Bush
Gordon Brown has maintained a cautious distance from Mr Bush

He used to spend his summer holidays on Cape Cod, until this summer, oddly, when he decided not to pack his bucket and spade for America and opted instead to taste the homespun delights of a very wet British August.

Mr Brown has cultivated a certain froideur with his ally in the White House. He knows the price his predecessor paid for too much warmth.

In Britain, they may track the ups and downs, the hugs and shrugs, of the special relationship very closely. In America they don't really give a damn, until it counts.

Tony Blair became very popular here after 9/11 because he pledged his undying support for the US in its hour of need, and then followed up with his shoulder-to-shoulder rhetoric on Iraq.

But just a few weeks before the troops went in, even Donald Rumsfeld reacted angrily to suggestions that the Blair government had to put its proposals to a vote in parliament.

"We can do it without you," was the gist. Donald was insensitive, to say the least.

Locking horns

I don't know why some British politicians are so paranoid about allowing a fresh, cool breeze to air the clammy closeness between Washington and London.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Claridges in London
Baroness Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did not always agree

It would lower expectations. It would be more in keeping with historical precedent. Despite Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, America and Britain have spent more time in the last 200 years locking horns than cosying up.

Wasn't it the Brits who burnt down the White House in 1814?

In 1895, the two countries almost fought each other over a trivial border pursuit in Latin America. It was noted at the time that such a war would have been very popular.

In 1914, more Americans initially wanted to fight against England than against Germany.

And even Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady, who wept discreetly at Ronald Reagan's graveside in 2004, occasionally disagreed with "dear, dear Ronny".

He was furious about the Falklands War and, when he decided to invade Grenada, his little island in the sun, she was equally hopping mad.

Western democracies, she said at the time, use force "to preserve our way of life - we do not use it to walk into other people's countries".

Today, loyalty has become a strait jacket, leaving no wriggle room for even gentle disagreement in public.

Didn't someone say: "You are either with us or you're with the terrorists"? That still applies. Even amongst best friends.


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