Shadow Government

Is there still time to save the Special Relationship?

As if the embattled "special relationship" between America and Britain needed any more drama, along comes this report from the U.K. Parliament saying that the Special Relationship doesn't (or at least shouldn't) even exist anymore. According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee:

The use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

Well. If this is intended to help Labour in the upcoming elections, it is just silly. But if this in fact heralds a substantive change in U.K. policy, it is both troubling and foolish. Without the United States, the United Kingdom's only other viable option for a distinctive international partner is the European Union. Yet Brussels will continue punching way below its bureaucratic weight in foreign and defense policy -- if it can even develop a coherent foreign and defense policy. 

Thankfully, it does not seem that the U.K. Foreign Office agreed with the report. The Foreign Ministry press office, in a head-scratching case of trying to change "happy" to "glad," gamely asserted that if the relationship isn't "special," at least it is "unique." According to their spokeswoman:

It doesn't really matter whether someone calls it the 'special relationship' or not. What matters is that theUK's relationship with the US is unique, and uniquely important to protecting our national security and promoting our national interest."

To give the benefit of the doubt to the press officer, her statement tries to maintain some manner of distinction about the U.S.-U.K. alliance. But whether it is called "special" or "unique," it is undeniably in trouble.

Part of the problem comes from apathy. U.K. citizens are preoccupied with domestic issues.  Most of the major U.K. newspapers ignored the House of Commons report; only the Sunday Times even covered it, in a short story in the inside pages. The headlines instead are about the continuing reverberations from Alistair Darling's cynical pre-election budget, and the ongoing row over the latestcorruption scandal in which several Labour MPs have been caught on hidden camera peddling their influence for sale. (One likened himself to a "cab for hire" -- an insult to London cab drivers, who are the finest in the world, not to mention a better value). 

There are also deeper issues in the U.S.-U.K .relationship, which is suffering from neglect from both sides. To begin, President Obama's initial honeymoon of soft power appeal in the U.K. has lost whatever luster it once had, and which never translated into concrete policy accomplishments. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's clumsy efforts to distance himself from his predecessor Tony Blair have included adopting a lukewarm posture towards the United States.

In his superb Alvin Bernstein lecture last November, Eric Edelman identified four structural pillars which defined the Special Relationship in the post-war years: leaders committed to shared values, tradition, and mission; a willingness by both nations to wage war together; scientific and technological cooperation on the nuclear deterrent; and tight intelligence cooperation. All four of these pillars, Edelman lamented, have been eroding on both sides of the Atlantic. If these trends continue, Churchill's words in 1946 -- prophetic at the time -- risk becoming merely anachronistic:

Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples ... a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States."

Yet the Special Relationship is "not dead yet." There are opportunities here for political leaders in both countries. President Obama, as I have written before, should seize the initiative and set up an official visit with whichever man wins the U.K. elections on May 6, as soon as the new Prime Minister is determined (still most likely to be David Cameron). Last Sunday, Shadow Foreign Minister William Hague and Foreign Minister David Miliband held a Sky News television debate, which revealed few substantial differences between Labour and the Tories on national security policy. Now this foolish House of Commons report offers a chance for Cameron and Hague to draw a clear distinction between their party and Labour. As Nile Gardiner has urged, the Conservatives should loudly reject the report and make maintaining -- or rather reviving -- the Special Relationship a centerpiece of their foreign policy platform.


Shadow Government

Why Obama's nomination of Aponte is stirring old fears of Cuban espionage

The Obama administration has resurrected a controversial Clinton-era nominee for an ambassadorial appointment in the Western Hemisphere and in doing so has reignited concerns about Cuban espionage in the United States.  

Mari Carmen Aponte has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to El Salvador, but her nomination has been held up by Senate Republicans who want a fuller accounting of an episode that derailed her bid for another diplomatic post under President Clinton.

Aponte once had a personal relationship with a Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban American whose ties to the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the Cuban DGI -- had caught the attention of the FBI.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 17, on her re-nomination by President Obama, she shed more light on the relationship, testifying that she was involved romantically with Tamayo, that he had "some contacts" with the Cuban mission, and that they socialized "on occasion" with Cuban officials.

In 1993, she said she was contacted by the FBI to discuss Tamayo. Several months later, the FBI asked her to take a polygraph. She refused, but did agree to set up a meeting between agents and Tamayo. According to Aponte, "They met, and shortly thereafter the relationship ended, and I never saw him again or saw anybody from the Cuban Interests Section again."

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of spycraft -- and Cuban methods -- would conclude this was a likely recruitment operation in progress. Now, being targeted by a foreign intelligence is not a crime, but what's mystifying is why Aponte did not lay this issue to rest when given the opportunity by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), who asked her point-blank if she thought she was being recruited.

Instead of admitting that it was possible, and defusing the issue by perhaps saying she could think of no reason why and it was a huge miscalculation if the Cubans thought they could get any useful information from her, she answered:

My contacts with the Cuban Interests Section personnel were of a social nature. They never asked me questions about my law practice. They never asked questions that were suspicious or that would lead me to believe that they were trying to recruit me. I never felt that I was approached."

It is precisely that sort of lawyerly non-answer that keeps the issue alive. And Republican senators are right to press for more answers for two important reasons.

First, the Castro regime continues to aggressively recruit Americans to do its dirty work in the U.S. Witness the recent cases of Ana Belen Montes, a DIA analyst; State Department official Kendall Myers and his wife; and the attempted recruitment of a Naval War College professor. In addition, numerous Cuban agents have been rolled up in Miami in recent years. If an ambassadorial nominee cannot recognize if she is being recruited, then that's a problem.

Secondly, Aponte is not being proposed for the Bahamas, but El Salvador, a key U.S. ally over the years in which the U.S. has invested heavily to help build a viable democracy.  Today, the country is in the midst of a crucial moment as the guerrilla-movement-turned-political-party FMLN was voted into power. President Mauricio Funes has tried to carve out a moderate image for himself but is surrounded by hardened ideologues who once thought nothing of shooting their way into power. Also lurking about is Hugo Chavez, who is still smarting over the deposing of his crony Manuel Zelaya next door in Honduras.

Whoever is handling the Aponte nomination for the administration is in serious need of a course correction. The incident in Aponte's life does not automatically disqualify her for an ambassadorial appointment, but how she is handling it does matter. These are important questions for anyone who values security and stability in our hemisphere -- and they deserve straight answers.

Alex Wong/Getty Images