• U.S.

Strains in the Alliance

3 minute read
Sally B. Donnelly

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart, Jack Straw, were the picture of transatlantic harmony as Rice visited Straw’s constituency in Blackburn, England, last week. Their good cheer reflected the continuing official closeness of their two countries–the tightest of coalition partners three years into the war in Iraq despite the opposition of much of the rest of the world and the fact that, as Rice conceded last week, “we’ve made tactical errors, thousands of them,” in Iraq. (She later said she meant it “figuratively.”) But not everyone in the British government is smiling. A dispute over a jet fighter is threatening to drive a rare wedge between London and Washington, straining the alliance at a time when Britain and the U.S. would seem to need each other more than ever.

The conflict was sparked by Pentagon decisions on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a state-of-the-art aircraft being built by a consortium of nations led by the U.S. and Britain. Britain has invested $2 billion in the plane’s development. But the Department of Defense has refused to allow the British access to the most sophisticated technologies on the JSF, and further insulted the British when it unilaterally decided that it would no longer need an engine for the plane that was to be built in part by Britain’s Rolls-Royce. In response, Paul Drayson, Britain’s Minister for Defense Procurement, blasted the U.S. in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month and threatened to pull Britain out of the JSF program. “We expect … to be properly consulted on decisions of this magnitude,” he said.

A U.S. official says the Pentagon has concerns about sharing the high-end security software needed for the JSF with companies abroad. “If we could give the codes to the British government and not to a British company, that would be one thing,” he says. But such arguments only reinforce the rising doubts in the minds of some British officials about the solidity of the underlying Britain-U.S. alliance. “We’ve long had troubles with Washington not considering us a full, trustworthy partner,” says a British government source. “The JSF is only the most potent symbol.”

British Defense Secretary John Reid, who is scheduled to visit Washington next week, is expected to raise the issue once again. The British, though, aren’t hopeful that he will have much success. It’s unclear how far London might be willing to go to show its displeasure. Blair has yet to complain to Bush in their weekly videoconferences. But a British official says, “We’re just about fed up.”

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