With Allies Like These …

Some members of the British Parliament don’t like the way we Yanks are treating the terrorists we’ve captured. Likewise elements of the British press. The Daily Mail ran a photograph of some handcuffed detainees kneeling in a holding cell in Guantanamo. A headline read: “Tortured.”

The newspaper complains that captured Al Qaeda members are being subjected to “sensory deprivation,” the better to make them susceptible to inquisitors representing the United States government. Imagine that. This alleged outrage inspired a delegation of M.P.’s to demand a meeting with the U.S. ambassador. According to an Associated Press dispatch from London, the chairwoman of Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, Ann Clwyd, wants reassurances from the U.S. that the Al Qaeda and Taliban captives are being treated like prisoners of war, with all the rights and privileges granted them by the Geneva Convention. Another M.P. complained that the war on terror is doomed if “we publicly treat people in the way in which these photographs suggest.”

Well, one thing the photographs in question suggest is that Guantanamo might be a fine place to spend the winter. The detainees in the picture are wearing short sleeves, an image that might inspire envy, not outrage, in certain sections of the American Northeast and Midwest. As there’s no indication that the detainees are being forced to read multiple-story front-page newspaper coverage of the demise of a movie magazine (the Geneva Convention surely would forbid this sort of treatment, and the humane among us would have to agree), it’s hard to imagine that they have it so bad.

What’s interesting is the source of these complaints. In the past, British politicians and newspapers never expressed much concern about the rights and privileges of I.R.A. members in their custody. In fact, they condemned the criticism of their juryless courts, draconian prevention-of-terrorism laws and God-awful prisons, saying that carping over such issues did nothing but provide aid and comfort to terrorists. American critics of Britain’s anti-terrorism measures in the 1970′s and 80′s invariably were slandered as unwitting tools of the I.R.A. at best, and terrorist sympathizers at worst. When the late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, a Roman Catholic archbishop in Ireland, argued for more humane treatment of I.R.A. prisoners in the 1980′s, the British tabloids called him the “Chaplain in Chief of the I.R.A.” and Margaret Thatcher condemned him.

A special British team is examining conditions in Guantanamo and is due to report its findings to Foreign Minister Jack Straw, another politician of newly delicate sensibilities. Mr. Straw has asked Britain’s delegation to find out more about why the short-sleeved detainees were spotted wearing handcuffs. No doubt he’s considered the obvious explanation–that the detainees are more than capable of killing themselves and others–and rejected it as insufficient cause for such brutal countermeasures.

This episode reminds us that fighting a war with coalition partners does not make for smooth relations. Even the fabled Anglo-American liberation of Western Europe had more than a few difficult moments, and there remains a school of thought which has it that relations between the two partners were so bad by 1945 that Winston Churchill deliberately snubbed Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral. Churchill always insisted that his cautious military advisers foiled his wishes to fly to America for the proceedings; odd, though, that those very advisers never stopped him from flying to the North African front to meet with Generals Montgomery and Alexander. One fairly prominent American didn’t buy Churchill’s excuse, and when Churchill himself died, President Lyndon Johnson had something else to do on the day of the great man’s funeral. Vice President Hubert Humphrey went instead.

Perhaps Mr. Straw’s throat-clearing remarks about the conditions in Cuba are nothing more than a bone that Prime Minister Tony Blair is throwing to Europe’s loony left. From Dublin to Berlin, and from London to Rome, the European Union’s far-lefties remain convinced that America deserved the carnage of Sept. 11 and had no right to respond with jets, bombs and missiles. Assailing the U.S. for handcuffing prisoners seems like an easy way for European politicians to make sure that nobody ever mistakes them for a cowboy like George W. Bush.

This dispute no doubt will pass without much more than a few more expressions of qualified outrage from the likes of Mr. Straw and his colleagues in the House of Commons. We can expect France to weigh in, too, although Mr. Bush very likely will be too polite to counter with some remark about the French treatment of Algerians in the 1950′s. Of course, that was then and this is now.

Frankly, we still haven’t quite figured out whether the detainees in Cuba are prisoners of war, criminals or something in between. Britain itself tried a little of both with the I.R.A. in the 1970′s, with uneven results. Whatever we decide, however, the smug lefties in Europe are bound to be unimpressed. And roundly ignored.