It was rude of Mitt Romney to cast doubt on Britain’s ability to successfully host the London Olympics, but it wasn’t stupid. His briefers on the London trip will have had files full of stories from the British papers, whose front pages had little else on them for days but forebodings over security lapses because of a screwup by G4S, the company hired to keep the Games safe. Britain hasn’t, in the past few years, been distinguished for excellence: Why assume the Games would be an exception?
For any foreigner, especially any American, alert to British events over the past year or two, these stories play against a backdrop of the perception of the British capital as “Londonistan,” a place whose tolerance of radical Islamism spills over into fatally dangerous carelessness. A city where, almost exactly a year ago, gangs of young men and women roamed the streets for several days, smashing shops, looting their contents, burning buildings, beating up passersby and isolated policemen. To voice doubts on U.S. television about London’s safety is not stupid, because doubts are in order.
Three institutions central to the world’s opinion of the United Kingdom have been and remain very badly shaken. These are the armed forces, the press and the banking system – three systems that, for two centuries or more, evoked real pride for the British people. The damage done – in two cases self-administered – has projected images of Britain that sharply contradict the sturdy, trusty, intelligently skeptical stereotype that the British like to think is a mirror of themselves.
The military is the outlier: It has not been the author of its own fall from grace, and is still thought of as efficient, well-equipped and well led. The wounds to its pride and efficacy have come from political considerations, of which the most important was to pull out of Iraq with an unconvincing rationale that the job it was doing, around the southern city of Basra, was done. In fact, its exit meant a U.S. brigade had to be deployed to cover the gap in security, despite the U.S. military itself being hard-pressed. In Afghanistan, a British withdrawal – this time in step with a similar U.S. exercise – is scheduled to begin next year. Several senior officers warn that the Afghan forces cannot provide security. Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Helmand, was quoted as saying in May that the local military “are not close to being able to take over from Western forces unaided, and I don’t believe that they would be able to contain the insurgency unaided by 2014, which is the date we are due to leave.”
Back home, the numbers of military personnel and bases and the ability to project force have been slashed so deeply that a slew of senior commanders have resigned, some remaining tactfully silent, others loud in their protest that the British armed forces now lack the capacity to fight even one, let alone multiple, large actions. Britain, with France, had been an at least partial exception to the somewhat dubious decline of Europe’s ability to pull its weight in military engagements (a cause of increasing concern to a vastly indebted U.S.) From having been a partial solution, Britain joins the problem. It will, said a report last autumn from the Royal United Services Institute, “never again be among the global [military] superpowers.”