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8 January 2001

Star Wars in their eyes

Will Tony Blair resist attempts to put Yorkshire in the front line of a new US defence system? Or wi

By Nick Cohen

Alan Wilson, the chief executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority, cuts a nervous figure. The jump from repairing landslips on the Cleveland Way to the diplomacy of mass annihilation is a long one, and a little breathlessness must be expected while he is in mid-leap.

“Christ knows!” he replies, when asked if the park’s planning committee will stand in the way of US determination to tear up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and provoke what France, Germany, Russia and China warn will be a new nuclear arms race. “I mean, er, yeah . . . or, er, well, no . . . I mean, God knows what will happen . . . The government will tell us what the national need is – won’t it?”

It ought to. But perhaps it will prefer a cautious silence. In the coming year, US insistence on installing a national missile defence system, the successor to Ronald Reagan’s failed Star Wars programme, will raise stark questions about what Britain’s “national needs” entail. Since Suez, the broad answer from Establishment leaders in all parties has been that American and British interests are one. Son of Star Wars technology tests their complacency to the limit. It has flunked every practical trial, but it shoots down the archaic cold-war consensus with uncharacteristic effectiveness. Whitehall is uneasy and anxious to pass the buck to anyone, even Wilson and his moorland councillors, for want of knowing what to do. I can understand why.

The dream of nuclear war without American tears cost Bill Clinton billions of dollars, and George W Bush is committed to wasting tens of billions more. Star Wars doesn’t work. It is based on a demonstrably fraudulent analysis of the “threat” posed by “rogue states”. Its inspiration lies in the staggering corruption of American public life by the corporate bankrollers of the main parties (in this instance, arms manufacturers) and the aggression and paranoia that animate the politics of the world’s only superpower. It threatens to destroy any remaining hopes of building a safer balance of power after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to push China into escalating nuclear competition in Asia and Russia into retaining a decaying and accident-prone stockpile of warheads.

For British politicians, it raises a parochial but urgent inquiry: how badly do you hate Yorkshire? I concede that many may find its citizens’ airs insufferable. Nevertheless – and I write as a Mancunian – it would be a touch extreme to wish that a foreign power should turn them into unprotected targets for nuclear attack. (The risk of radiation drifting into neighbouring counties of itself forces compassion.) For Yorkshire must follow American orders if the fantasy of Star Wars is to be made flesh.

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The RAF bases at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill on the North York Moors are being developed as missile-tracking stations. Their “royal” titles are bogus. Both are de facto American possessions. Fylingdales has been part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System since 1953. The Pentagon wants to install X-band radar, which will improve the detection and tracking of warheads and satellites. RAF – or rather, USAF – Menwith Hill is ready to complement Fylingdales. In 1997, the government gave the US permission to install a Space Based Infra-Red System, which is meant to be able to detect the launch of rockets.

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No one pretends that the new technology, even if it works, can protect any country but the United States. All the proposed Star Wars forward bases are far from the US – in Greenland and Australia, as well as Yorkshire – in order to give the interception missiles time to be launched and shoot down incoming warheads. No enemy of America would want to run the risk of leaving the shield intact. They would want to take it out.

The audacity of American demands has traumatised conventional wisdom. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was checked in the 1950s and 1980s in part because it could be presented by right- thinking people as an unpatriotic movement of dupes who would unilaterally destroy Britain’s deterrent. This time round, the roles are reversed, and the very strangeness of the new landscape to those who accepted the slogans of the cold war accounts for the disorientation in official circles. This time, it is the Americans who are acting unilaterally and making a nonsense of deterrence theory by allowing their country to launch a nuclear strike safe in the knowledge – or delusion – that missile defence will prevent retaliation.

The Conservatives, who shout so loudly against the European Union sapping British sovereignty, have decided that America must have whatever America wants. Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow defence secretary, revealed himself as a displaced American nationalist when he cried: “It is critical for the Nato alliance that Britain takes the lead in uniting with the Americans on ballistic missile defence.” The ass did not understand that virtually every Nato member opposes Star Wars, not least because it will put western Europe at risk without offering any compensatory protection. By contrast, Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, who few regard as a raving peacenik, deplores the proposed annulment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

New Labour is stuck in the middle and has not known what to think. Robin Cook and Peter Hain in the Foreign Office have been opposed from the start. Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, was initially a loyal native. “The history of close friendship with the United States is that we are sympathetic to such requests,” he said, inelegantly, in March 2000. Hoon’s casual endorsement allowed Kevin Bacon, a Pentagon spokesman, to assert that Britain would not stand in his masters’ way. “I think it’s too early to predict a problem there,” he said. “I wouldn’t anticipate there would be a problem, actually.”

Although nothing has been said in public, the Ministry of Defence, which is nominally meant to defend Britain, is now seeing problems aplenty. The more it studies Star Wars, the less it likes it. “We’re unhappy and the Foreign Office is unhappy,” a mandarin told me. “The real problem is Downing Street.”

Quite so. The British political class loves America and aches for its praise. William Hague’s slogans and policies come from Dubbya. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have taken everything Clinton has offered them, from rapid rebuttal to welfare-to-work. I often suspect that the great regret of many senior politicians is that an accident of birth denied them the chance to play power games on the great imperial stage by the Potomac. Acceptance by Washington is the best substitute. When Clinton was host at a White House ball for Blair in 1998, Tina Brown described the scene thus:

“Tony Blair has a kind of elfin glow. The ardent look that Cherie Blair shoots him still has the undergraduate complicity of ‘Darling, we made it didn’t we?’ “

Brown’s style may be clammy, but her observation is sharp – making it means making it in Washington, even the debauched Washington of Bill Clinton. To this inferiority complex must be added the illusion of great power status that America gives Britain by sharing intelligence. Britain can believe it is a nation with global reach, “punching above its weight”, because it gobbles the crumbs from America’s cutely named “intelligence community”. When Charles Windsor once again proved his unfitness to be king by condemning the government’s plans to participate in the European defence force, he wailed that co-operation with Europe could lead to Britain losing sight of what intelligence the Americans wish to show us. If military co-operation with Europe upsets the US, how much more anger will be caused by a refusal to help install Star Wars?

In these circumstances, some ministers and advisers look with pleading eyes towards the councillors of the Yorkshire moors. If the Americans are to turn Fylingdales into a Star Wars base, they must expand the facility and apply for planning permission to the National Park Authority. Suppose, ministers muse, the councillors and quangocrats tell the Americans to get lost. A national park, after all, is meant to encourage hiking and biking, not nuclear proliferation. US officials are hearing whispers from London that expanding the base will lead to protests from not only CND, but also the more formidable forces of the Women’s Institute, the Ramblers’ Association and righteous Yorkshire nimbies.

There would be a fine symmetry if North Yorkshire resisted. Europeans have grown weary of hearing from regretful Americans that the US cannot sign treaties to stop, say, the execution of children, or to eliminate landmines, because Congress won’t stomach any constraints. Imagine the pleasure it would give Cook if he could echo their sighs and tell General Colin Powell (Bush’s secretary of state-in-waiting) that, much though he would like to let US forces spread across Yorkshire, Councillor Harold Broadbottom OBE (for a lifetime of service to the sheep-dipping industry) won’t have it.

Alas, we are not only up against Alan Wilson’s palpable desire for the government to tell him where the national interest lies, but also up against the special status of RAF Menwith Hill, which makes it immune to planning controls. The Space Based Infra-Red System is coming into service this year without any parliamentary or local debate because Menwith is on Crown land, and the Queen’s prerogative powers ensure that development on it is free from democratic scrutiny. (The monarchical privileges of the British ancien regime thus aid the imperial ambitions of the American Republic.)

There is no escape. Tony Blair will have to choose between American and British interests, between a special relationship with the US and a civilised relationship with the rest of the world. The willingness of such pillars of Atlanticism as the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence to fret about Star Wars suggests that the choice ought not to be difficult. The FO is appalled by the diplomatic consequences of Star Wars. For the US to be in a position to attack without fear of reprisal requires a renunciation of its promises in the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, the foundation of arms control. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has warned that, if the Americans want to release themselves unilaterally from international law, Russia will renege on the 1987 INF Treaty and develop the capacity to produce new intermediate-range nuclear missiles to strike European targets – adding to the number of missiles already pointed at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill.

There have been Panglossian reports in Washington and London that Putin is ready to back down and the Americans could yet enjoy their new toy-set without starting a needless arms race. Russia has denied them all. But even if Putin changes his mind, nothing will pacify China. Beijing has a mere 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US and believes that Star Wars will render the deterrent worthless. If China arms in response to the US, India and perhaps Japan will follow. If India arms, so will Pakistan, and the nuclear confrontation in Kashmir – about the most terrifying on earth – will become more frightening still.

The US counters that Star Wars is not about global dominance via military control of space, even though US Space Command is discussing the use of lasers on satellites to destroy any ground target anywhere on the planet by 2020. Rather, Americans insist that they have sincere worries about the “rogue” states of North Korea, Iran and Iraq which everyone else should share.

It is at this point that the MoD has doubts about the sanity of its American friends. North Korea is close to starvation and its dictatorship is suing for a kind of accommodation with South Korea and the US. Iraq is patrolled by American and British planes, while Iran is moving away from fundamentalism. None of these countries is in a position to threaten an intercontinental missile strike. In any case, it would be far easier to smuggle nuclear or biological weapons into the US than to spend years developing intercontinental missiles.

The US national missile defence programme is riddled with fraud. The contractors (who subsidised the campaigns of both presidential candidates) have hidden their systems’ inability to tell the difference between an incoming missile and a decoy – and have done so with the full support of the Pentagon. Fifty-three members of Congress have called for an FBI investigation.

Britain is being asked not only to approve the simultaneously perilous and incompetent programme, but to allow its territory to be used to destroy the international treaties that our ethical Foreign Office promotes.

If Al Gore had won the presidential election, Blair would no doubt have shown the required servility. New Labour owes much to the new Democrats and was willing to pay exorbitant interest on the debt indefinitely. But George W Bush had the better corporate lawyers and more judges in his pocket. My liberal colleagues are still in mourning and screaming fraud, despite being unable to point to any differences worthy of the name between the American contestants. They can’t understand what several ministers are telling them in private: that it may well be far better for Britain that Gore is no longer able to twist Blair around his little finger.

Bush has stuffed his administration with cold warriors longing to find an enemy to justify a permanent war footing. The president-elect showed his desperation when he told an audience in Iowa: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.”

There is a chance that Bush’s idiocy will provoke Blair into just saying no. I realise that this optimistic conclusion may be proved ludicrously glib within months, or even days. But at least we will then know the truth about the Prime Minister: if he will put up with Star Wars, he will put up with anything America throws at him.