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Does Obama blame Britain?

Mark Mardell | 20:33 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009

The world, and America's allies, will have to wait a little longer before we all find out what the president intends to do in Afghanistan, and how many new troops he might intend to send there.

You might think that the NATO defence ministers' meeting today in Slovakia might be a good place to give America's allies a clue. But US defence secretary Robert Gates won't be giving any secrets away. On his way there, he said: "I am moving into my personal decision phase" about troop numbers. He added with a heavy dose of sarcasm:

"I will probably share with the president and my colleagues in the American government where I come out on this issue before I share it with 27 defence ministers."

Fair enough, but his words will add to the growing sense of frustration in European capitals. Europe's military and political class has never been so ready and keen for American leadership. But there is a growing sense of frustration that they are not getting it.

The longer the White House deliberations go on, the more and more difficult it is to sell to their public the commitment to a mission that isn't being defined. It is much easier to show enthusiasm for a definite plan than to sell a determination to back whatever it may be that President Obama comes up with in the end. The countries which would send more troops are jittery about what they will do if Obama doesn't show the commitment they expect.

Britain will march in lock-step with whatever America requires. The British government believes that an Afghanistan that offers no safe havens makes British streets safer. But it is much more than this, part of a broader policy that sees respect for American leadership and engagement, and loyalty to the world's only superpower, as one of the key elements of British foreign policy.

This may be a mistake. Some claim that the Obama administration deeply distrusts the British government precisely because of this loyalty. Some say Obama's advisers blame Britain for what they believe was a disastrous war in Iraq.

The argument I have heard goes like this: the one man in the entire world who could have stopped the war by withdrawing his support was former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Although he is no longer in power, the ministers and advisers who could have stopped him are still in positions of great responsibility. So the more eagerly Britain marches in lock-step, the more the administration discounts its advice.

But as we wait for the sixth meeting of Obama's war cabinet,he is offered some relief by the vice-president. No, not Joe Biden, but Dick Cheney - who in a blistering attack on the president's foreign policy has said that Obama "seems afraid to make a decision". At least some European allies will conclude that they prefer the uncertainty produced by a few weeks' careful reflection to the decisiveness of the previous administration.

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