The London bombings failed to destroy Britains special relationship with the United States or Tony Blairs close ties to George Bush. Yet, the attacks have introduced a new awkwardness to trans-Atlantic ties.
In 7/7, as the four terrorist attacks on London commuters have already become known, Britain now has its own 9/11. The bombings, though feared and even expected for a long time, have changed the nature of the terrorism debate. On one level, the attacks have brought Britain and the United States closer together as two countries under attack from al Qaeda. Yet, on another, possibly more lasting level, the attacks have exposed differences in the position of the two nations. On 9/11, the United States was attacked by 19 foreign nationals. On 7/7, Britain was attacked by four of its own citizens.
The solidarity came first, not least because President George Bush was at the Group of Eight summit in Scotland when the attacks occurred. The president stood alongside Tony Blair in a memorable photograph of world leadersnot just the G-8 ones but also those from China, India, and South Africawhen the Prime Minister denounced the attacks. Moreover, the horrible reality of the bombings has silenced those who claimed that the British and American governments were exaggerating the terrorist threat to justify draconian legislation against terror suspects and the Iraq war. The warnings have been shown to be all too accurate.
But complications have arisen from the disclosure that the bombers were not foreign nationals. This revelation immediately turned the debate inward. The threat seems even greater when it comes from withinfrom people who had attended British universities, who liked cricket, and who were schoolteachers and fathers. The bungled July 21 bombingsif they too prove to be the work of British nationalswill reinforce British fears and nervousness on public transport. The existence of a very large Muslim community in Britain, even though many are now second- and third-generation residents, presents a wholly different problem from that faced by the United States.
If events have not obviously harmed the trans-Atlantic relationship, they have made things a bit awkward. First, there is little Washington can do to help Britain in the short term. After 9/11, Britain demonstrated its solidarity with the United States by joining in the military effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan. There can be no military response to this terrorist attack.
Second, several U.S. commentators have described Britain, and particularly London, as a breeding ground for terrorists, including Richard Reid, the man who tried to blow up an American Airlines jet using his shoe. The British public seems to recognize the dilemma. Some may regret that a tougher attitude was not taken earlier. But the general tone has been calm and restrained. Apart from far-right anti-immigrant groups, such as the British National Party, there is no desire in Britain to punish or exclude Muslims generally. Rather, its the reverse. Blair has met with opposition party leaders, and moderate Muslim leaders to discuss how to isolate the extremists and recruiters of future potential terrorists. More than 70 percent of voters, according to a recent poll, want the government to exclude or deport from Britain foreign Muslims who incite hatred.
For Washington, extremist Islamic groups in Britain and other western European countries represent a growing threat to the United States that will continue for many years to come, in the words of Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. But how should Washington respond? By tightening visa requirements? That would penalize hundreds of thousands of British visitors to the United States every year who are wholly unconnected to any terrorist groups. Any treatment of Britons in this way would be very damaging to bilateral relations. This problem is probably as vexing for American officials as it is for British ones.
Third, the insistence that the 7/7 attacks have nothing to do with the Iraq war has begun to wear thin. While stressing that there is no causal link between the two, a number of mainstream politicians now argue that the Iraq war has fuelled resentment among disaffected young Muslim men, making them easy prey for extremists. An analysis by Chatham House, Londons most prominent think tank, now warns that Britain is at particular risk of terrorist attack due to British participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A recent opinion poll found that two thirds of British voters thought that the attacks and the war were in some way linked. Until now, apart from a small group of strong opponents of the Iraq war, there has been no great pressure for Britain to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
With the absence of British casualties on anything like the scale of American ones, Iraq has not been at the center of Britains political debate. Admittedly, there is widespread disbelief about American and Iraqi claims that the insurgency is waning. Although public hostility to President Bush remainseven among Conservative Party supporterscriticism is directed mainly at Blair for backing Washington, rather than at Bush directly.
So far, the impact of the attacks on trans-Atlantic ties has been more remarkable for what hasnt changed than what has. The attacks have not destroyed Blairs premiership. He is now in a stronger position than he was the day after his May election victory. The attacks have also not substantially changed British attitudes regarding Iraq. Those who strongly opposed the war and hate President Bush still do.
Few Britons believe that a withdrawal of British troops from Iraq or Afghanistan would make Britain less vulnerable to terrorism. The British also know that Londons influence on the Middle East peace process is marginal. So almost whatever any British government does, the terrorist threat will remainand the really worrying factor is realizing that the threat will sometimes come from inside Britain.