The Decent Thing

The meeting took place late last year, before the grotesque images out of Abu Ghraib. U.S. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the general in charge of the now-infamous prison, sat in on a staff meeting with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and his military legal team. The discussion: how to cope with overcrowding as detainees poured in. At one point a senior British officer spoke up. "The best solution is to find a way to release these people instead of building more and more detention facilities," he said. "Why don't we just do the decent thing?" Recalling the incident, Karpinski tried to conjure up the incredulity with which U.S. commanders greeted the Brit's effrontery: "They looked at him like, 'Who asked you?' "

The Brits and the Americans have always done peacekeeping differently in Iraq. British paratroops in Basra favor berets and a less intimidating kit than the Kevlar-helmeted, body-armored Americans to the north. Older and wiser--or so they like to think--the British deploy far fewer reservists, weekend warriors or contract soldiers than do the Americans. True, they operate in a less hostile environment. "Basra isn't Baghdad," says a former senior British officer. But on balance the British still come across more as nation-builders than warriors. They banned the unnecessary "hooding" of detainees in February, before the scandalous photos from inside Abu Ghraib came to light. The British government has investigated several dozen allegations of abuse by its troops, but in almost all instances "there was no case to answer," as Prime Minister Tony Blair put it last week. The Daily Mirror published photos on May 1 that seemed to depict British troops mistreating an Iraqi. But they were faked, the editor was fired and last Saturday the tabloid apologized to its readers and British troops.

The difference in styles--Do the decent thing... Who asked you?--is stark. So much so, NEWSWEEK has learned, as to become a serious obstacle to military cooperation. The British chief of the General Staff, Sir Mike Jackson, delicately hinted at "military friction" last month when he testified to a parliamentary committee about "doctrinally" different approaches "to postconflict operations." Privately, British commanders were seething over the Marines' monthlong siege of Fallujah--the doctrine of "kill, kill and kill again," as a former British officer put it to NEWSWEEK. "British officers were appalled by [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's intervention there," says war-studies professor Lawrence Freedman of King's College, London. The Abu Ghraib revelations, says former British air marshal Sir Tim Garden, further alienated British commanders. Now, military sources tell NEWSWEEK, British commanders are increasingly reluctant to commit troops to zones not under British control. "We'll do it our way--or no way," says a former senior British officer.

Britain's contribution to the war effort hangs in the balance. With several Coalition members--Spain, Poland and others--withdrawing or downsizing their commitments in Iraq, Blair is under heavy U.S. pressure to send more troops. But with anti-war sentiment rising in Britain, and with Blair's poll ratings collapsing, President Bush's most loyal Coalition partner is finding it increasingly difficult to play the role Washington expects of him. One Blairite M.P. puts it bluntly: "As an ally, Blair has never been weaker."

Spain's 1,300 troops will be gone by June 1, leaving a big hole in the Coalition's forces around the holy city of Najaf, home to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Poland, which commands the south-central multinational military sector where Najaf is located, has called for a "progressive reduction" of its 2,400 troops. The Americans have asked Britain, which commands the southern sector and has 7,900 troops in Iraq, to fill the vacuum. According to some sources, Britain is considering sending an additional 4,000 or more troops. Officially, the Ministry of Defence says only that Britain is "in discussions with our Coalition partners." But, says Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell, the opposition's shadow Defence minister, "these aren't discussions--they're arguments."

The disagreement is not just tactical, nor is it confined to military matters. There are inescapable broader geopolitical implications. Under extraordinary political pressures of its own, the Bush administration has been grasping for a truly international mission in Iraq. Even as the Poles and the Spaniardsare cutting loose, the Americans are desperately canvassing to get Muslim boots on the ground--from Pakistan, Morocco and other countries. But it's not happening. And in the wake of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, America's traditional allies are more reluctant than ever to get involved. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier announced last week that French troops would not go to Iraq under any circumstances--period--not even with a new U.N. resolution. "We note on every front," Barnier told Le Monde, "a spiral of horror, of blood, of inhumanity."

This has become Blair's problem, too. Iraq hangs over his ship of state like some ghastly albatross. With a general election likely next year, the historian Correlli Barnett asked in The Guardian newspaper last week, "why does Blair not recognize that the closer he stands publicly to Bush, the more he distances himself from his party and much of British public opinion?" Blair's riposte might be, "Too bad." He is nothing if not loyal--and remains convinced that the cause is just. He seems coolly unperturbed by the prospect that his Labour Party will do badly in next month's European Parliament and local elections. As he told The Independent, "This idea that at the time of maximum difficulty you start messing around your main ally... I am afraid that is not what we are going to do."

We shall see. Over the coming months, political imperatives will peck away at the U.S.-U.K. alliance. Bush faces an election in November. Blair may, too, next year. Meanwhile anything can happen in Iraq. Another scandal, an atrocity or, worse, a wholesale loss of control by Coalition forces could throw these underlying British and U.S. differences into high relief, despite the prime minister's best intentions. A serious rift would have serious consequences for the two Atlantic partners, not to mention Iraq.