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How Biden lost Britain

When has a Conservative MP openly called the US president “a blithering idiot?” Is there any precedent for a chair of the foreign affairs committee likening the US Army to “a thief in the night” or a former foreign secretary saying that the president should feel “deeply ashamed”?

That Joe Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal has received such harsh denouncements from British politicians of all parties – Labour leader Keir Starmer called it “a catastrophic error of judgement” while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey accused Biden of having “no awareness” of the situation – shows just how deep the feeling of betrayal lies.

Some 454 British servicemen and women lost their lives in Afghanistan after America activated for the first time NATO’s Clause 5 to rally allies to its defence. The UK invested heavily in the rebuilding effort that followed but was not consulted at America’s decision to call the whole thing off. Heartbreaking images of people forced to flee their homes, the end of emancipation for women in Afghanistan’s cities, and the looming spectre of a new refugee crisis, have provoked huge anger among the British establishment and its people who feel that Britain’s efforts have been betrayed.

But there’s a deeper source of frustration underlying the reaction. The end to the war in Afghanistan marks the end of a volume in British history for which the sequel is as yet unwritten.

It seems as though the often-quoted Dean Acheson quip that “Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role” has been described as “just as relevant today as it ever was” in perpetuity ever since the then-secretary of state made the remark in 1961. In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it seemed as though Britain may had found its role, although not a universally popular one, it has to be said. Blair and Bush took Britain and America to war together, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the name of democracy and freedom. Just like old times.

Britain become America's number two; Greece to America’s Rome, as some colonially nostalgic Toffs liked to say. On the battlefield, Britain could play the wiley NCO, taking orders from its less experienced commissioned officer put in charge of the troops by fate and privilege, while Britain quietly provided the benefit of untold combat experience and keep the other members of the garrison in check.

This was the fantasy. After its fall from global dominance, which generations since many Britons still found hard to accept, pining patriots were comforted with taking second place in order to maintain an outsized influence on world affairs, something that is inexplicably regarded as an imperative by most Brits.

The strive for relevance was one of the battlefields on which the schismatic Brexit referendum was fought: Could Britain maintain the same degree of influence over the world outside the EU? It could, said some. Afterall, Britain’s alliance with America has helped shape the world far more than EU fishing quotas or the terrifying induction of Muslim Turkey into the Union – a proposal primarily supported by Britain, incidentally, a fact conveniently forgotten during the Brexit campaign.

But the hope that post-Brexit Britain could sidle up to America once again were quickly dashed; the Trump administration had no interest in getting the old band back together. While the anti-internationalism of Trump’s rhetoric bolstered the narrative of the Brexit campaign, it left the eventual victors utterly isolated in the North Sea.

Biden’s “America is back” campaign, then, was warmly received in Britain by both sides. Biden would reunite the UK with Europe and North America in common cause and Britain could retake its place next to the head of the table.

The nostalgia was short-lived. Biden did not reverse Trump’s haphazard Afghan withdrawal. He accelerated it, without consultation with Britain or the other NATO members who lost lives fighting in defence of America. “America First”, as it turned out, was not a Trump slogan, but an American ideal for a generation. After fighting a trilogy of wars – with Britain at its side – against Germany, Russia, and global terrorism – America is keen to return to its long dormant preference for keeping itself to itself – as much as a military superpower with the largest global reach in history can.

Those who still insist that Britain can go it alone and send troops back to Afghanistan without US support – and there are some in Parliament who advocate this – appear increasingly deluded. Britain stands alone (where is the fabled EU Army we’ve heard so much about?) unable to prevent its Afghan allies from falling to a ramshackle mob of illiterate extremists with Soviet rifles.

While we have been told numerous times that Biden is unlikely to suffer too much at the polls, that his ending of the war is popular, that Afghanistan will be forgotten by the election, and that insular American voters aren’t as bothered by foreign affairs as by the Mr. Potato Head Company changing its name to The Potato Head Company, British voters will remember. Foreign affairs are followed much closer in the UK and remembered for far longer. Britons never forgave Bush for the calamitous Iraq War; Tony Blair’s credibility never recovered. And, quite possibly, neither will Biden’s. The President can claim that he did not lose Afghanistan, but he has lost Britain.

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