U.S. staying silent on Scotland's bid for independence

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LONDON -- With support growing for independence just months before Scots decide whether to break up with Britain, outsiders are weighing in with impassioned calls to keep the 3-century-old union together.

British officials from across the political spectrum, European Union leaders, corporate executives and retired military commanders have made their cases. Even David Bowie registered a plea for Scotland to "stay with us."

But there has been conspicuous silence from one major player with a lot to lose if Scotland secedes: the United States.

A vote for independence would dismember Washington's closest and most important ally, leaving behind a not-so-great Britain at a moment when Russia is waging the stiffest challenge to Western authority in a generation.

Although any separation after the Sept. 18 referendum would be peaceful, it would trigger years of messy negotiations over the future of the British nuclear weapons program, North Sea oil reserves and the pound. George Robertson, a former NATO secretary general and British defense minister, said in a speech in Washington this past week that for the United Kingdom to "shatter this year would be cataclysmic."

Even with such high stakes, the Obama administration has stayed on the sidelines, insisting that "the future of Scotland is an internal matter."

Now, with polls showing the unionist lead down to the single digits, the administration must choose whether to remain mum or to speak out in favor of keeping the United Kingdom together.

Analysts say a strong American statement could tilt the balance in a tight vote. But no one knows which way.

Scotland has powerful cultural and economic ties to the United States, and Mr. Obama -- who is believed to have Scottish ancestry -- is relatively popular there. A personal appeal from the U.S. president to the Scottish people to stick with the U.K. might cause some Scots to think twice before heading for the exits.

It could just as easily backfire.

The Scottish independence movement is built on centuries of grievance toward London, which is seen as imperious and indifferent to the welfare of Scots. As London's closest ally, and the world's only superpower, the United States is often viewed in the same light -- as overbearing.

In general, Scots have not reacted well to the idea of outsiders telling them how to vote.

"There's a narrative that people have of Scots as being feisty and stubborn. No one tells them what to do. And there's a modicum of truth in that," said John MacDonald, who directs the Scottish Global Forum, a think tank.

But Mr. MacDonald said the main reason for the backlash is that anti-independence forces are starting to panic and are trying to scare Scots into voting no.

While a vote to break the bond with Britain was seen as a remote prospect just months ago, it has become a real possibility. And that's deeply worrying for Western security officials.

"Nobody in the West wants this to happen," said Phillips O'Brien, who directs the Scottish Center for War Studies at the University of Glasgow. "At some point, you have to admit you're not a great power. And if Scotland is leaving, you're basically left with the city-state of London."

Scotland is just one piece of a union that also includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In population terms, Scotland is relatively small -- only 5 million people out of 63 million.


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