Lee Ruddin: Debunking the “Poodle” Thesis in Anglo-American Relations ... Thatcher as One of Reagan’s Principals





Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN. He lives in England.

Readers of the Guardian may be forgiven for thinking that its editors were now big advocates of the Anglo-American “special relationship” after the newspaper ran a fascinating feature on Emma Sky, ‘the British peacenik who became the key to the US military.’ Granted, its chief political correspondent (Nicholas Watt) derided Mitt Romney on his recent trip to London and scolded the Republican presidential challenger for an advisor’s comment relating to his ‘Anglo-Saxon heritage.’ Yet it sounded almost proud of the fact that a civilian (one opposed to the war in Iraq) advised an American commander (namely General Raymond T. Odierno) on the dusty plains of Mesopotamia and that her ideas were later reflected in General David Petraeus’s successful counter-insurgency doctrine.

Fiercely opposed to the “occupation,” the broadsheet – again, proudly, it must be noted – illuminated how Sky, an Englishwoman, represented the US military during negotiations on the “Status of Forces Agreement” concerning the continued presence of coalition personnel. The UN resolution was due to expire at the end of 2008 and Sky, as part of a small team under the US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, worked tirelessly to prevent a power vacuum. Sky’s diplomatic skills impressed Americans and Iraqis to such an extent that she was deployed on a key ambassadorial assignment. We cannot say for certain whether Prime Minister Maliki would not have traveled to Camp Victory – the seat of the “occupation” – had Sky not woke him upon hearing the news that President Obama could not travel to the Green Zone. But what we do know is that a British “Arabist” helped to inject a bit of “specialness” into the burgeoning American-Iraqi relationship by arranging for the two leaders to meet.

Such an influence is nothing new, though, as Richard Aldous illustrates in his latest book, Reagan and Thatcher:The Difficult Relationship. The ‘Soviets seemed to have calculated that [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was’, her private secretary, Charles Powell recalled, “somebody who could both persuade President [Ronald] Reagan to deal with them and in a sense help explain them to [the Commander-in-Chief].”’ The above referenced quote is not, rest assured, an isolated one. Indeed, while some reviewers may (rightly) question Norton publishers’ decision to bill Aldous’s work as one of historical revisionism (since it will fail to supplant Geoffrey Smith’s 1991 pioneering study, Reagan and Thatcher – a text also published by Norton), the Eugene Meyer Professor of British History and Literature at Bard College, New York, intelligently (if indirectly) revises the “poodle” thesis.

Denis Healey once remarked that “When President Reagan says, ‘Jump,’ Mrs. Thatcher asks, ‘How high?’” The then-Shadow Foreign Secretary’s comment, and referral to the PM as the C-in-C’s “obedient poodle”, never became tomorrow’s chip paper after hitting the headlines because he continued to peddle the one-liners in symposia reflecting upon the Cold War Years. But as Aldous now illuminates to – for want of a better word – the poodle peddlers, what Neil Kinnock said about Thatcher being “supine in her support for the American President” was anything but the case. Indeed, Aldous’s account of Thatcher (in the words of reviewer John O’Sullivan) ‘blowing into Washington, blowing up, and blowing out again’ destroys any credibility of the then-Leader of the Opposition when it comes to the process(es) of foreign-policy decision-making.

Thatcher, unlike Kinnock, had authority – all of it in her relationship with Reagan. She was also more of an attack dog than a poodle, as evidenced by her actions at the G-7 summit (at Montebello, Ottawa, in 1981) when she confronted France’s Francois Mitterrand and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau as they endeavored to corner the recently-inaugurated 40th President of the United States to “discuss” his economic policies. Administration officials never forgot this incident and principals utilized Thatcher to great effect for eight years during the Eighties. Two examples of a principal-like, poodle-lite Thatcher – in 1982 and 1984 – stick out and warrant further discussion.

The American policy of sanctions against the Siberian pipeline (in response to the Communist government in Poland imposing martial law in December 1981) did not garner much allied support; Thatcher was livid with Reagan and his unilateral approach (in June 1982), believing that the US declaration of economic war on the USSR would have dire consequences for European allies. ‘[A]t a time when she was often accused of being Reagan’s poodle, this was an occasion when she seemed determined to show both bark and bite,’ Aldous records. So much so, the author asserts, it explains ‘why immediately after losing the debate, [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig wanted to get Thatcher into the Oval Office – and why [National Security Advisor William P.] Clark tried to keep her out. For within the western alliance there was no more robust opponent of these sanctions than Thatcher.’

Policy debates surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative followed a similar pattern. Reagan had rejected Mutually Assured Destruction but Thatcher believed that the SDI (comprising the weaponization of space and commonly referred to as “Star Wars”) was, well, MAD. Despite the realist PM believing that the idealist C-in-C’s dream of a nuclear-free world was an unattainable one, she agreed to publicly support his Administration’s research initiative. In private, however, like at Camp David (in December 1984), Thatcher launched into a tirade, distinguishing between SDI as a research initiative and as a deployed system. ‘“Nuclear weapons,” she reminded Reagan when emphasizing détente over defense, “have served not only to prevent a nuclear war, but they have also given us forty years of unprecedented peace in Europe. It would be unwise to abandon a deterrence system that had prevented both nuclear and conventional war.”’

Secretary of State George Shultz shared Thatcher’s concerns but he was outnumbered in the Administration and thus not confident that such reservations would be raised in the coming disarmament talks at Geneva. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, meanwhile, was in agreement with the C-in-C and both were extremely confident that SDI would not form part of the negotiations with the Soviets. ‘Thatcher’s visit’, however, Aldous informs the reader, ‘had offered [Shultz] an opportunity to ensure that his view prevailed’ and that SDI would ‘at least be on the table.’ As the author concludes, ‘State Department officials had worked directly with the British to produce the document that emerged from Camp David. “It was an excellent statement,” the Secretary judged; “it differentiated between research and deployment of space-based defense and gave me some running room in Geneva.”’

Richard Perle, a principal arms negotiator for Reagan at Reykjavik, similarly took took heart from Thatcher challenging Reagan’s ‘non-nuclear creed’. “Some of us, learning that Mrs. Thatcher was coming,” David Dimbleby and David Reynolds, authors of An Ocean Apart: The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century, quote Perle as saying, “were rather pleased at the prospect that some of the more intemperate and visionary views of the President might be modified, as indeed they were. So many of us regarded her as a voice of calm reason, and a much needed one, in particular on this issue of a world without nuclear weapons, which is dangerous nonsense. The President gives expression to it too frequently, but never in close proximity with a visit from Mrs. Thatcher. So we get a brief respite from that rubbish when she comes.”

The aforementioned examples are classic instances of how members of the Reagan Administration used Thatcher as one of the President’s principals to gain leverage during internal policy disputes. Given what transatlantic expert Ritchie Ovendale, author of Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century, says about Thatcher’s role in the making of ‘American foreign policy’ and ‘the way a telephone call from her could lead to Reagan discarding State Department recommendations,’ you can understand why Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US ambassador to the UN, asked: “Why not disband the State Department and have the British Foreign Office make our policy?”



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