Donald Trump’s support for the use of torture by America reached a new low even for him. Never mind that a full reading of his words shows that he was actually backing down from his campaign position, in which he said that he would “bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse”. Never mind that he therefore took cover behind James Mattis, his Defence Secretary, and Mike Pompeo, his CIA Director, both of whom are opposed to the use of torture: “if they don’t wanna do it, it’s 100 per cent okay with me”. And never mind that, as the President himself effectively conceded, he cannot break his country’s laws against torture by executive fiat. (“I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally”, he said.)
The simple fact is that his words will have read and noted in the rest of the world, where they will have a disastrous effect on the battle for hearts and minds, especially in Muslim-majority countries. Terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda do not operate in isolation; they recruit and shelter amidst a swamp of public opinion. By backing torture in principle, Trump isn’t draining that swamp: he is feeding it. And as Mark Wallace pointed out yesterday on this site, torture doesn’t work. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be right. And even if it worked and was right, it wouldn’t be wise. The United States and its allies have always held fast to this view – scorning the use of torture during the war against fascism and the longer war against communism.
The reputational capital that great men like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan amassed – while holding true to America’s idea of itself as a shining city on a hill – is too precious to be squandered by a moral dwarf like Trump. But it is one thing for ConservativeHome to say so – we can write what we like – and quite another for Theresa May to do the same. Though she will have been horrified by the President’s view on torture, she does not have the freedom that we do. She has a responsibility to her country to get the best out of the man who is now the most powerful in the world. So she must “cloak, cozen, cog and flatter…crouch and seem courteous”. “Sometimes, opposites attract,” she said as she flew in to meet him, doubtless through clenched teeth. Politics can truly be a filthy business.
Her speech to the Republican Party’s conference showed her meeting that responsibility, and seeking to take the Conservatives’ sister party with her – to use it as an ally in restraining the most wayward President in modern times. Yes, she said, NATO is in need of “reform and renewal”, but it is “the cornerstone of the West’s defence” (i.e: it isn’t, to use Trump’s word, “obsolete”). Yes, its other members should meet their obligations, but “we must always stand up for our friends and allies”, such as the Baltic States. Yes, we should engage with Putin, but we should beware of him. Yes, the Iran deal must be “very carefully and rigorously policed”, but it has got results and should therefore (she suggested) he adhered to. Yes, the U.N and other international institutions need to change, but they are vital.
Every one of these messages was crafted to shore up Britain and America’s present and common position. And they were duly wrapped up in the familiar language of what we call the Special Relationship – on other words, with references to America’s alliance with Britain in two world wars, Churchill’s partnership with Roosevelt, the common struggle against communism, the mutual building-up of international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF (which the Prime Minister stressed heavily), and a shared way of thinking, drawing on “Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law” (none of which sit with the use of torture, though she didn’t say so directly).
Above all, she wants that trade deal, which would be a proof that Britain’s new global role can work – though she was prudent enough to say that “it must work for both sides and serve both of our national interests”. President and Prime Minister both will seek to project it as the main matter of her visit, as they seek to frame the latter as a success for both. For they need each other. She needs him to lean on the EU 27 and the Commission during the negotiations, and to stick to the post-war internationalism that has marked his country’s foreign policy. And he seems to need her, given the amazing speed of her visit. Downing Street has been busy playing down comparisons with the Reagan-Thatcher era – which he likes to draw – but yesterday she deliberately played them up.
There were no fewer than four Reagan references in the speech – to his reference to “fifty-six rank-and-file, ordinary citizens”; to his relationship with Gorbachev; to his words “the sleeping giant stirs” – and, pointedly, to the freedom of Eastern Europe made possible by “the leadership of Britain and America, and of Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan”. The evocation of the great partnership of the 1980s is in some ways strained. Thatcher could be, at least on some occasions, the dominant partner. It is hard to imagine May hectoring Trump. Reagan’s and Thatcher’s worldviews converged. On Russia, NATO, Iran, and international institutions, May’s and Trump’s are a long way apart. We hope they meet – on her terms.
A famous left-wing poster of the 1980s portrayed Thatcher and Reagan as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. It did neither of them any harm. We thus present an updated version, courtesy of Carla Millar. For the Prime Minister, as she prepares to meet with the President, tomorrow truly is another day.