In what could turn out to be the first concrete impact on the United States of the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union, the new British prime minister has appointed as her country’s top diplomat a former journalist and London mayor whose public positions on Syria and the Middle East break sharply from Washington’s.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s appointment Wednesday of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary comes as Great Britain seems increasingly leery of its longtime role as a lock-step partner with the United States in the Middle East.
Last week, Britain released its long-awaited investigation into its role in the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion. Known popularly as the Chilcot Report for the politician who chaired it, “The Iraq Inquiry” was harshly critical of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration for going along with the questionable U.S. intelligence used to justify the invasion.
The appointment of Johnson as foreign secretary seems another step in distancing the United Kingdom from American policy.
Johnson, who is outspoken on most things, famously wrote a column in December for The Telegraph newspaper, outlining his thoughts on Syria just days after the House of Commons had approved British airstrikes. In it, Johnson noted that “young people have been coming up to me in the street and asking in an accusing way: ‘Oi, Boris, why did you vote for war?’ ”
Referring to the then efforts to retake the fabled city of Palmyra from the Islamic State, he wrote: “Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site? You bet I am. That does not mean I trust Putin, and it does not mean that I want to keep Assad in power indefinitely. But we cannot suck and blow at once.”
The British foreign secretary doesn’t actually make British foreign policy, any more than Secretary of State John Kerry makes U.S. foreign policy. Their roles are to support administration policy.
But the new prime minister, who served as home secretary for the last six years, isn’t well known for foreign policy positions. Her policy pronouncements have focused on police, internal security and immigration. In recent weeks, she’s made a big push to get out her economic vision. What she thinks of the Middle East is, largely, a mystery.
As he noted in his commentary, “Were the UK to change its position on Syria, the UK would break with leading Western nations over Syria policy, most notably the US. While Britain is by no means a decisive actor in the Syrian conflict, it is a significant one. Johnson’s appointment is likely to concern the Syrian opposition, whose list of friends is small and diminishing.”
Johnson hardly approaches his foreign policy with an anti-American voice. In the same article in which he suggested working with Russia and the Syrian government to defeat the Islamic State, he noted, “Look, I am no particular fan of Vlad. Quite the opposite. Russian-backed forces are illegally occupying parts of Ukraine. Putin’s proxy army was almost certainly guilty of killing the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines jet that came down in eastern Ukraine.”
But, in another Telegraph column in March, he clearly saw the Russian intervention in Syria as a good thing. “It has been Putin who with a ruthless clarity . . . helped to turn the tide” against the Islamic State, he wrote: “If Putin’s troops have helped winkle the maniacs from Palmyra, then (it pains me to admit) that is very much to the credit of the Russians. They have made the West look ineffective; and so now is the time for us to make amends, and to play to our strengths.”
He suggested British experts in architecture go to Palmyra to help in the restoration.
Beyond that, even at the highest levels of diplomacy, personal relationships matter. Johnson has taken his share of potshots at world leaders, including U.S. leaders.
The British Independent newspaper ran a story on its website under the headline “Six times the new foreign secretary has insulted world leaders.” The article gave examples that included a limerick Johnson recently wrote about notoriously thin-skinned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that spoke of relations with a goat. The article also noted Johnson has referred to President Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president” who had an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
In a column in 2007, Johnson described Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in unflattering terms: “She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”
He didn’t take shots only at U.S. Democrats, however. He once wrote that George W. Bush was “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomizes the arrogance of American foreign policy.”
It appears that one of his biggest worries about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is that they share similar hairstyles. Johnson has been widely quoted as noting, “I am genuinely worried that he could become president. I was in New York and some photographers were trying to take a picture of me, and a girl walked down the pavement towards me and she stopped and she said, ‘Gee, is that Trump?’ It was one of the worst moments.”
The U.S. has been less than trusting of Johnson for years, as a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in London to the State Department makes clear. In that unclassified cable, dated April 16, 2008, Johnson, a former editor of the conservative British magazine The Spectator, is described as “best known as a mistake-prone former journalist twice exposed for committing adultery, now a Conservative MP. Johnson is also well known for apologizing.”
The cable lists a number of his better-known gaffes, including making light of the beheading in Iraq of a Liverpool resident, belittling Portsmouth as “too full of drugs, (and) obesity,” saying Papua New Guinea was known for “orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing," and even referring to the “watermelon smiles” of Africans. Still, it concludes, “Despite this record, Johnson is a popular figure.”
The same cannot be said today for Blair and the relationship with the United States in light of the Chilcot Report. That report notes, “The U.K.’s relationship with the U.S. was a determining factor in the government’s decisions over Iraq. . . . It was the U.S. administration which decided in late 2001 to make dealing with the problem of Saddam Hussein’s regime the second priority, after the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the ‘Global War on Terror.’ . . . This was not, initially, the view of the U.K. government.”
The report returns repeatedly to the theme that the Blair government’s effort to remain on best terms with the United States in the end was not in the best interests of the United Kingdom. In fact, the report notes that the interests of the U.K. were harmed through the invasion and the failure of the post-invasion occupation.
“Most crucially, the U.S. administration committed itself to a timetable for military action which did not align with, and eventually overrode, the timetable and processes for inspections in Iraq which had been set by the U.N. Security Council. The U.K. wanted . . . the support of the Security Council, and of the international community more widely, before any further steps were taken. This option was foreclosed by the U.S. decision.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews