Redwood throws spanner in works of “special relationship”

Senior Tory MP attacks Barack Obama, says he is “less popular than Bush”, and that the president sho

David Cameron should not even seek a "special relationship" with Barack Obama, given the president's politics, a senior Tory MP has said as the Prime Minister prepares to fly to Washington to meet with the US leader.

John Redwood says that "I don't think Mr Cameron should expect or even seek a 'special' relationship with Mr Obama". He adds that Obama "belongs to the US school of thought which wants to ring one number to talk to 'Europe'. So let him talk to Baroness Ashton all he likes and see how he gets on."

Redwood hits out at a series of positions held by the president, and claims that "Mr Obama has lost much of his star dust in the USA. He is now a much more unpopular president than Mr Bush at a similar stage, and faces a difficult fight in the next Congress elections."

Below are the full comments, which appear on Redwood's blog today:

As someone who has in the past been an enthusiastic Atlanticist, valuing our relationship with the USA, I don't think Mr Cameron should expect or even seek a "special" relationship with Mr Obama. I want us to maintain our close ties with the USA. but think they are stronger at the moment people to people, business to business and with a wider range of US actors than the current beleagured administration.

Mr Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, and judges his allies by the extent of their commitment to this endeavour. All are found wanting, as his allies do not share his view of the conflict. They also suspect that he is looking for the exit himself. His decision to intensify the conflict and increase the number of US troops was born of his election campaign when his positioning required this statement on Afghanistan. Today it appears that he will need to show progress in bringing the troops home for a future election.

Mr Obama probably belongs to the US school of thought which wants to ring one number to talk to "Europe". So let him talk to Baroness Ashton all he likes and see how he gets on. She may be amassing an unwanted army of diplomats at our expense, but I am relieved to say she still does not command our troops.

Mr Obama has declared war on BP, and sought to represent this global company as some kind of British destructive force in the USA. The president is getting a reputation for being anti-business, and seems to like having a foreign business whipping boy. His interventions have not helped control the leak or deal with the disaster.

Mr Obama has been critical of the policy of controlling large and growing public-sector deficits. Just because the USA has so far got away with a high spend high borrowing strategy does not mean smaller countries are able to do, as Ireland, Greece, the Baltic states and others have discovered to their cost.

Mr Obama has lost much of his star dust in the USA. He is now a much more unpopular president than Mr Bush at a similar stage, and faces a difficult fight in the next Congress elections.

At some point the polls will tell Mr Obama he has to revisit his policies in several key areas. How much longer can he go on increasing spending? How far can he take the socialism in a largely free-enterprise country? When will he find a new approach to the Middle East? Is his relationship with China good enough to ensure they carry on buying US debt? Is he going to duck being the climate-change warrior he promised in the election?

Mr Cameron should speak up for British interests without fear or favour. He should tell the president privately that all the allies need to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. They should work on a way of ensuring the Afghan forces can take over more quickly. In wartime the US and UK trained many troops in a matter of weeks or months. The idea that it will take another four years to train enough Afghans to patrol their own country is a strange one. It is also unlikely that the west might be able to handle the politics of that difficult country and make a political breakthrough in the next couple of years, given the experience of trying over the last eight.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.