David Cameron, for all this week’s fuss, is not the first prime minister to fly on Air Force One. Back in 1994, John Major accompanied Bill Clinton on a trip from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. (I am aware of this because I was one of a small group of reporters who joined the flight).
The reason why Mr Major and the rest of us were invited aboard was presidential guilt. Mr Clinton had disreputably awarded Gerry Adams a US visa, and was trying to make up for it. It was like no other journey any of us had made. Air Force One is like an enormous and hugely expensive penthouse flat, with bedrooms, bathrooms, offices and expensively appointed drawing rooms, the prevailing colour of which is beige. There are no rows of seats of the sort one expects in an aeroplane. But by every armchair there was a telephone, so we could ring up whom we wished, anywhere in the world. At the end of the flight, we were given a pack of Air Force One playing cards as a souvenir.
It is easy to see why British prime ministers should find this very seductive (though why Mr Cameron has brought the Chancellor of the Exchequer with him on this trip to the White House, on the eve of one of the most important Budget statements for decades, one that will further drain the finances of middle Britain, is inexplicable). The pictures at the basketball game, the meeting between two very charismatic first ladies, the opportunity for a serious private conversation with the President in the White House – all this can be valuable.
But it is also troubling, and raises questions. In recent years, Britain’s allegiance to the United States has led us into two conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been our worst military setbacks since Suez. These humiliations might have been worthwhile if the cause was good. But the post-9/11 wars have been fought in a way that has done hideous damage to Britain’s reputation as a country that claims to value freedom and the rule of law. This is almost entirely due to the readiness of a generation of British political leaders and security chiefs to offer uncritical adherence to the US.
There is no sign from this week’s official briefings that Mr Cameron has raised with Barack Obama the shameful case of Shaker Aamer, a British resident who has been held in Guantánamo for 10 years. No charges have been laid against Aamer, and he has never received a trial – a betrayal of British justice.
Nor is there any evidence that Mr Cameron has complained about the atrocious conduct of US troops in Afghanistan – the destruction of copies of the Koran, the urinating on dead Taliban, last weekend’s massacre of 16 civilians in Kandahar by an unnamed US solder. These are issues that concern Britain deeply, because our soldiers are vulnerable to retaliation.
Mr Cameron’s tragedy, like Tony Blair’s before him, is that he has made the pragmatic decision to live with this American barbarism. With British troops fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan, this makes him – and Britain – an accomplice.
On Tuesday, Mr Cameron and Mr Obama wrote a joint article for the Washington Post in which they asserted that they were “building the institutions that undergird international peace and security”. This claim is nonsense. The United States does not even belong to the International Criminal Court, which brings war criminals to justice, on the realistic grounds that it fears its own generals being held accountable for their atrocities.
The US constantly subverts the United Nations, most recently through the abuse of Resolution 1973, passed in March last year to give cover for regime change in Libya. This breach of faith with China and Russia has had terribly damaging consequences in dealing with the crisis in Syria.
The two leaders claimed to be on the side of “brave citizens across the Middle East and North Africa who are demanding their universal rights”. This is partly true. Britain and the US have not stood in the way of the Arab Spring, or at any rate not as much as all that. Nevertheless, the claim that we are on the side of human rights would come as news to the brave protesters in Bahrain, or the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, or the prisoners held for a decade without trial in Guantánamo.
The most problematic part of the article, however, was the suggestion that Cameron and Obama follow in the magnificent tradition of Roosevelt and Churchill. Not only is this vainglorious, it is palpably untrue. There is no question that back then our two great countries jointly stood for freedom and the rule of law against something dark and incomparably evil.
Though more controversial to say so, I believe that under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Britain and America stood for the same superb principles in the cosmic battle against the Soviet Union. Since then, the US, with our complicity, has again and again resorted to conduct that is wholly unacceptable by our own moral and legal codes: the use of torture and secret prisons; the kidnapping of suspects; targeted assassination, including the random killing of civilians; the systematic denial of rights to Muslim suspects which would be available as a matter of course to US or British citizens.
It is important to bear in mind that this conduct is not merely an affront to humanity and a violation of our traditions. It also strengthens and supports the teaching of al-Qaeda that the West is engaged in a war against the Muslim world, and therefore makes much more likely and risks legitimising a repeat of the kind of atrocities that struck London in July, 2005.
There are grounds for sympathy with these two world leaders, as they mouth their platitudes and tell their transparent lies. Both of them are decent, well-grounded and humane politicians. Both of them took office with a promise to end the violations of decency and justice that were such a blatant factor of the Bush/Blair era. In the case of Mr Obama, he has simply lacked the strength to confront the US military-industrial establishment. Guantánamo remains open, while new technology, enabling the use of armed robots as weapons, has opened the way to a horrifying era of targeted assassination and secret warfare.
As for Mr Cameron, he has very understandably accepted the post-war doctrine of the Foreign Office and the security establishment that our country counts for nothing without a strong relationship with the United States. But this timidity comes with a price. Without meaning to, and without really knowing what we are doing, Britain and America are systematically betraying every one of the timeless values that we fought for in our great alliance against fascism 70 years ago.
Cross-posted with thanks from the Daily Telegraph where Peter Orborne is their chief political commentator.