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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.3 (2001) 57-84
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The United States, Great Britain, and the Middle East:
How Special the Relationship?
More than half a century has elapsed since Winston Churchill coined the expression "special relationship" to refer to British-American ties. Nearly four decades have passed since scholars first debated the meaning of this expression, as well as the substance and significance of the bilateral relationship it denotes. Coral Bell provided a useful entry into the discussion by describing the special relationship as "not a construction but a capacity--a capacity to see the elements of common interests in whatever international storms the time may bring." 1 During the Cold War, the storms that occurred in or that otherwise threatened the Middle East tested the capacity of policy makers in Washington and London to see the elements of common interests and to formulate policies accordingly. Over the past decade, events in the Middle East have supplied U.S. officials and their British counterparts with new challenges. In turn, these challenges have served as catalysts for the post-Cold War reaffirmation and reshaping of the special relationship.
The post-Cold War Middle East has been marked by massive violence: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which gave way to a devastating war and an austere sanctions regime punctuated intermittently by crises; the militarization of the Kurdish problem in Turkey; and the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents in nightmarish civil conflicts in Algeria and Sudan. This period has also been marked by wide pendulum swings in regional politics: exhilarating [End Page 57] breakthroughs followed by disappointing breakdowns in the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) and the apparent blossoming of a more liberal theocratic order followed by a "conservative" backlash in Iran. Where breaks with the past have occurred, there remain more questions than answers: how new political leaders in Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia will perform; how new strategic alignments (for example, between Israel and Turkey) will affect the regional security environment; how economic reforms will shape the social and political systems of countries such as Egypt; and how new information technology might be employed by, or against, the ruling establishments in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Primarily because of its abundant oil resources, the Middle East will continue to be a geopolitical focal point of world attention and an area where U.S. interests and those of its traditional European allies overlap. Among the world's major powers, the United States--reflecting its global primacy--is the preeminent player in the Middle East. Yet in spite of this preeminence, and in some ways because of it, the United States cannot fulfill its policy objectives in the region merely by exercising raw power. It is as important to the United States today as it was in the past to marshal international support, especially the support of its traditional European allies, for its policies in the Middle East. Providing this support, albeit reluctantly and sometimes half-heartedly, is the premium that these allies continue to pay for the defense of their interests in the region. Nevertheless, in recent years Middle East issues have been sources of both transatlantic and intra-European friction. The British-American relationship has been somewhat susceptible to this tension. On balance, however, U.S. and British officials have worked effectively to align their policies and manage their differences.
What can explain the policy congruence between the United States and Britain with respect to the Middle East? And what is the likelihood that this policy harmony will persist? These are timely and important questions. The MEPP is in tatters, international support for maintaining sanctions against Iraq continues to erode, and the position of the reformist faction in Iran is precarious at best. Managing these difficult problems requires a coherent European-American strategy. Developing and executing such a strategy depends in no small measure on a fundamental unity of purpose, as well as continued close cooperation between Washington and London. [End Page 58]
Roots of the Relationship
Traditionally, British-American consultation and policy coordination on Middle...