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This Torture Scandal Reveals Us as an Ineffective Jeeves to Our US master

This torture scandal reveals us as an ineffective Jeeves to our US master

Timothy Garton Ash

Well, it's always nice to know someone is reading you. Last week the foreign secretary responded to my column about possible British complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed with a reader's letter disputing its accuracy. His letter concluded: "These are serious issues which deserve to be discussed seriously. But let us do so on the basis of the facts." I could not agree more. Yesterday another letter appeared in this paper, this time from one of Mohamed's lawyers, offering some compelling detail to contest the foreign secretary's central claim that "it is factually wrong to say that we tried to conceal potentially exculpatory material from Mr Mohamed's defence counsel". So plainly the facts are disputed. Tempting though it is to plunge into tangled thickets of claim and counter-claim about who exactly said what when to whom, we must not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

One big, wood-size question is precisely how we establish those facts in public, especially given that some derive from intelligence shared by the US with Britain. The government suggests a combination of the attorney general looking into a possible criminal investigation and reports by the intelligence and security committee. That is not enough. We need an independent inquiry.

A second is: how can we avoid this ever happening again? Gordon Brown yesterday announced that there will be new guidelines for British security and intelligence operatives interviewing detainees abroad. We must wait to see them, of course, but the remit is not wide enough. The principle must surely be that any British operative is obliged, on pain of their career and possible prosecution, to shout blue murder if he or she receives intelligence reports that suggest someone is being tortured under the auspices (direct or indirect) of the US, or anyone else. And the agency should immediately cease all further co-operation on that particular case, and related ones. Such fundamental human rights trump even that holy-of-holies of British foreign policy, intelligence-sharing with the US. Or is anyone prepared to say that it is better to stand by while a man is tortured rather than imperil our intelligence-sharing with the US?

That brings me to a third big question. At the heart of all this is the absolute priority that the British government gives to our "special relationship" with the US, and the way in which British leaders and officials approach it. Take, for example, the story that the Foreign Office has told me with some emphasis over the last week. It is that, soon after David Miliband arrived at the Foreign Office in summer 2007, he wrote to the US secretary of state asking that the British residents incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay be released and returned to Britain. Thereafter Miliband's officials worked to make that happen, and secured the release of three of them, but not Mohamed. When Pentagon prosecutors defiantly went ahead to prosecute Mohamed, against a raft of good advice, the issue of releasing potentially exculpatory US intelligence reports - copies of which were in the British government's possession - became acute. The officials worked hard to get those documents released from US sources to Mohamed's defence counsel in the US. All along they believed private diplomacy would be more effective than public confrontation. Finally the charges were dropped and Mohamed was released - though only after damning judgments from the British high court and a change of administration in Washington.

In short: we, the British, were the good guys, it was the Americans who were the bad guys. Or rather, some Americans, since characteristically the British government got itself mixed up in Washington's dysfunctional inter-agency process, getting caught in the crossfire between, say, the state department and the Pentagon.

Now let us take this account on its own terms. Let us accept that, at least from the early summer of 2008, the Foreign Office made strenuous efforts to achieve the fair treatment and eventual release of Mohamed. Even if we accept that, what is the deeper lesson of the larger story of which this is only a coda?


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Here, in miniature, is a classic example of that whole British approach to our relationship with the US, which I call the Jeeves school of diplomacy. Impeccable manners; a discreet smile; always perfect loyalty in public; but privately murmuring insistently, "Is that wise, Sir?" And back home in Jeeves's own club, frequented - as devotees of PG Wodehouse will recall - only by gentlemen's gentlemen (ie butlers), you tut-tut about the foolish conduct of the masters.

This has, in some measure, been a British approach for more than 60 years, ever since hegemony passed across the Atlantic. (For this Jeeves was himself a master once.) But it has been a national strategy with ever diminishing returns, and it has no remedy for the circumstance that Bertie Wooster goes berserk. What does Jeeves do when Wooster starts torturing people in a back room, or getting a Moroccan butcher to do the penis-slashing for him? What if Wooster embarks on what you believe is a dangerous and mistaken war? From everything we know so far, the British Jeeves's answer was to murmur by turns: "Might I assist you, Sir?"; and "Is that wise, Sir?" That was the approach not just on particular horrors like extraordinary rendition but also on the Iraq war and the whole misbegotten concept of the "Global War on Terror". For all along, the Foreign Office, and much of the British government, knew better, knew that this was not wise or right, and would privately tell you so.

The claim was that this policy best served the British national interest, our national security and the safety of our citizens. Maybe Tony Blair believed that at the time. Yet a clinching argument was always, as Robin Cook recorded Blair telling a Cabinet meeting in the run-up to the Iraq war: "I tell you that we must steer close to America. If we don't we will lose our influence to shape what they do." What influence, Jeeves? What of any significance did you actually change in Bush's disastrous, law-abusing foreign policy?

Not only did this whole strategy end up harming those British national interests, security and reputation in the world that it was supposed to sustain. It was not even good for the US. We would have been a better friend to the US if we had spoken up publicly to protest, never even countenanced extraordinary rendition, not gone along into Iraq, and instead - as Obama now advocates - stuck with Afghanistan and more intelligent, civilised, legal and durable ways to combat the real terrorist threats we face.

Not only Britain but the US, indeed the world, would be in better shape today if Britain had not continued to play this demeaning part of the faithful retainer who will put up with anything. A true, valued friend is the one who tells you when are doing something stupid or wrong, not the one so anxious to keep your friendship that he will never bawl you out. I am sure that is what many people in the Obama administration feel in their hearts today, even if they wouldn't articulate it so clearly. So that this subservient fetishisation of the special relationship, with intelligence-sharing at its heart, ends up weakening even the special relationship. Poor, stupid, self-deluding old Jeeves.

Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist

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