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Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 10/20/2006 [Archive]

Debriefing Liam Fox Britain's 'Shadow Defense Minister'



Conservative Liam Fox is Britain’s ‘Almost’ Donald Rumsfeld

He probably wouldn't appreciate the parallel, but Liam Fox is almost the Donald Rumsfeld of Great Britain. Fox, a medical doctor and a member of Parliament, is the Conservative Party's "shadow defense minister," which means he speaks on defense issues for his party while Tony Blair's Labor government is in power. Dr. Fox, a hawkish supporter of President Bush's foreign policies, recently finished third in the contest to become Conservative Party leader.

Fox, 45, met in Pittsburgh Oct. 17 with about 20 business leaders to promote The Atlantic Bridge, an organization he founded in 1997 to build close personal and political relationships between American and British conservatives.

Q: What is the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Britain and how is it holding up?

A: The relationship occurs at a number of levels. There's a very strong cultural relationship. We share many of the same roots, obviously historically, in the political relationship because we share the same values. And our eagerness to make sure that the values we have of an independent judiciary, of secular government and of human rights, we obviously want to see that spread as widely as possible. Perhaps the strongest special relationship is militarily, because we have a lot of cooperation in intelligence. We have cooperation in terms of the missions we carry out. And we have cooperation in procurement.

Q: What are the most important goals or national interests the two countries share today?

A: Well, we share the interests of diminishing the threat against our values and our civilization, which we are facing at the present time in particular in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want to ensure that a secure relationship outside is matched by the prosperity and security of our people at home.

Q: Are there any major points on which the U.S. and U.K. disagree that you wish they did not?

A: Well, perhaps let me put it another way: What is the threat to the special relationship? The threat to the special relationship comes from two different areas. The first is from the European integrationists who would like to pull Britain away from its relationship with the United States, and they want to see us dragged more into European political and economic and military structure. The second real danger to the relationship comes from the other side, from American isolationists, who want to turn their backs on the outside world and concentrate on internal American issues. Both of these are potentially dangerous to the special relationship. ...

Q: This is almost a joke, I guess: Is Europe as annoying to the British as it is to America?

A: Well, it depends. I think you have to differentiate between Europe the continent and the European Union, the political institution. There are a number of us who believe that the European integration has gone too far; that they interfere with the legitimate role of sovereign governments; that there is too much red tape and bureaucracy; and perhaps most irritatingly to us, some European countries seem absolutely obsessed with looking inwards and looking to what they call full political integration at a time when we should be looking outside and understanding the realities of global integration and the challenges they present to us.

Q: Who would you match up most closely with in the United States -- George Bush, John McCain?

A: I'd probably broadly be in the middle of the Republican Party if I were an American politician. I would be very much in support of some of the foreign policy objectives currently being pursued, but I might differ on the size of the deficit, where I'd be fiscally a bit more conservative.

Q: Tony Blair has been such a strong supporter of President Bush on the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. What could a Conservative prime minister do better than Blair did?

A: I think there are some subtleties that we need to bring to the foreign-policy debate. I think that, for example, we need to understand that we are liberal -- in the small l -- liberal democracies. But we were liberal long before we were democratic. In the United Kingdom it took us 200 years to get from Adam Smith to universal suffrage. It was a long period between the abolition of slavery and women getting the vote. So I think that what we need to bring to the foreign debate is an understanding that democracy is not simply the exercise of electoral mechanics. It is also about values. It is about an independent judicial system and it is about a stable democracy, as well as human rights and the ability to exercise your individual economic liberty in a market system. So all those things need to be in place and hopefully we will be able to just stop every so often and try to remember from our own history that these things were not built over night. The other major difference of course is that under Tony Blair the British armed forces have been hugely overstretched. We are only spending 2.5 percent of our GDP on defense in the U.K. this year, which is the smallest proportion of our national wealth that we have directed toward defense in any year since 1930. We are at the moment undertaking a full review of our foreign defense policy because either we are going to have to increase our resources to match our commitments or we will have to reduce our commitments to match the resources, and that’s a very important national debate which needs to take place in the United Kingdom.

Q: You voted for the invasion of Iraq. Any second thoughts or regrets?

A: No. I think that the involvement in Iraq was perfectly justified. I think, however, that there were a number of mistakes made. It was always clear that winning the war would be the easy part ... but I think that the requirements for reconstruction were underestimated and I think that the disbanding of the Iraqi army was a major error. Both those mistakes are still echoing in Iraq to this day, and I think as a consequence of both those things the involvement in Iraq will be both longer and more difficult than it might otherwise have been. ... ,

Q: I understand you are not a big fan of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Is he the person you would blame for the problems we have had in the reconstruction and occupation?

A: Well, obviously, the buck stops with the defense chief, but I don't think you can blame any one person. As we used to say in medicine, the most useful instrument is a "retrospect-o-scope." All these things are easy in retrospect, but what I do think is important to learn from Iraq is that we can't make the same mistakes in Afghanistan. What is a little surprising to me here in the United States is that Afghanistan seems to be very much the minor military preoccupation here. And yet I believe that what is happening in Afghanistan is of greater strategic importance than what is happening in Iraq.

Q: How would you measure success in Iraq -- what do we have to do there to be able to say we succeeded?

A: What we’re looking at is, are we creating stable government structures? Are we able to create an independent judicial system which applies equally to the governing and the governed? Are we building the basic institutions that people will look to for their well-being -- health care, education and sanitation? Are all those things occurring and is the security position improving or deteriorating? So these are the things we’ll look at. If I can sort of anticipate perhaps the next question: No, you can’t set a timetable for the end of our involvement in Iraq because I think it’s impossible to know the pace at which those different factors will progress or the degree to which they will interfere with one another.

Q: No matter what your position was on going to Iraq or what it is today, most people tend to think that the situation there is deteriorating in a lot of ways. I know the media can be criticized for emphasizing the negative aspects of the war. But you’ve been there a dozen times or so and ....

A: No, no (not that many times). But I was last there about three months ago, in the south with British troops in Basra. We do need to look at some of the good things, because when I was there, there was still a general welcome for what was going on in that part of the country. I’m due to go to Baghdad very shortly and I might find that different. But in the south, we’ve already handed a couple of provinces back entirely to civilian rule and removed British military presence there. I was out on a foot patrol with soldiers in Basra, and while it is true that the soldiers say their relationship with the Iraqi people has gone from "welcoming" to "consent" to "tolerance," there was nonetheless still a fairly warm welcome on the ground for the reconstruction efforts which the troops were undertaking. And since you’ve mentioned the media, one of the things the soldiers said to me was that we will only be in the British media if we are killed or injured because nobody wants to write about rebuilding a bridge or a school or reconnecting water supply. So I think there has been a tendency to look at only the negative aspects.

Q: Are you optimistic about Iraq and Afghanistan -- which by a lot of accounts is not in very good shape?

A: I'm more optimistic about Afghanistan than Iraq. I think it's still possible in Afghanistan to avoid some of the mistakes that were made in Iraq, which is why I think our NATO allies who are not pulling their weight in Afghanistan must be urged by all of those of us who are strongly committed there to do so. You’ve got a huge British presence and American presence. You’ve got a strong Canadian presence. And although we have a reasonable number of troops from countries like Germany and Italy, there are so many caveats attached to their rules of engagement that it actually is very difficult to have a properly concerted military integration there.

Q: Obviously the Atlantic Bridge is very important to you. What is it and why is it so special to you?

A: Well, when I was a minister in the foreign office of the British government, the thing that struck me most about conducting foreign policy was that there was no substitute for personal chemistry. I think it is very important to create not only the intellectual framework that will strengthen the special relationship, but actually to create the network of individual people who can know one another. That needs to be in politics, and in the media, and in the military, and in academia. And that’s what we’re trying to do: We are trying to bring people together who have common interests and to recognize that in an ever-more globalized economy, we will all be called upon to defend those common interests.

Q: If you were a British bookie, what would you say the odds of you ever becoming Prime Minister would be?

A: Oh, I wouldn't even put odds on it. What I would say is that I think it is increasingly now likely that we will see a Conservative government after the next election in Britain, because I think the Labor government is sad and intellectually tired. And I think that it is now shown to be nothing more than a permanent campaigning party which has its own interests and short-termism ahead of the national interest. I think the public has seen through them and I think Tony Blair's departure next year will be followed by his party's departure very soon after.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. ©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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