In a recent post we wrote about how the British poodle was starting to bite at it’s American owner (see post). In the post, we touched upon the case of Mr Megrahi – the Lockerbie bomber and his imminent release from prison on compassionate grounds. It was announced today that Mr Megrahi would be released and allowed to return to Libya to die with his family (see story). There is so much in here that it is worth unbundling the story in order to take stock.
In recent days, there has been a great deal of diplomatic pressure from the US not to take this decision. The White House had called for Mr Megrahi to serve his sentence, until death, in a Scottish prison. The statement was reinforced by a personal appeal from Hillary Clinton for Mr Megrahi to stay in Scotland. That the Scottish Justice Secretary decided to pay no regard to these appeals suggest that – whilst there may be no intention of a snub to the US – the Scottish politicians are not perturbed by the discomfort of the American politicians. As such, it signifies a major change of attitude towards the US.
It will be interesting to see how the US government responds to this decision. Regret has already been expressed, but will it go beyond that? It would not be in the interest of America to take matters too much further for two reasons. First, things are not going well for the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been an uptick in violence in Iraq, which always has the attendant risk of spiralling out of control. Will the US troops have to come out of their barracks again? Will the withdrawal from Iraq have to be delayed? These are two issues on President Obama’s agenda at present.
In Afghanistan things are not going well. Turnout for the elections is reported as being low (see report), which suggests that the Taliban might say that they have won the election. The mission could well take far longer than expected, which puts President Obama in a position where he needs to ask for greater support from the European allies. The question that he currently faces is whether or not he would want to jeopardise this support by taking up the case of the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bomber.
The second reason why President Obama might be a bit loathe to race to action is money. Not only is he short of manpower, he is also short of cash. The Federal deficit is at record levels and rising. Interestingly enough, the UK is the third largest purchaser of US Federal Debt - behind China and Japan - with all of the economic vulnerabilities that implies. It is difficult to believe that President Obama would be prepared to risk a run on the dollar for a relatively minor incident.
In an exchange of private correspondence after my last post on this issue, one of my correspondents stated that ‘the UK needs the US more than the US needs the UK’. I wonder if that is really the case. Under the Bush administration, France suffered no great disadvantages from being hostile to the US and Britain enjoyed few favours from being America’s friend in Europe. This may not have changed in the new administration. If so, then we may be witnessing a realignment of the UK away from the US and towards the EU.
Only time will tell.