AFTER eight years of often-difficult foreign policy, does President Barack Obama bear any grudges? A lengthy new article based on hours and hours of interviews with the president published by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg offers a hard look at Obama’s thoughts on America’s allies and enemies — some of which may seem strikingly unorthodox.
For example, while Iran comes into the president’s firing line, Obama also complains bitterly about America’s Sunni Arab allies, Saudi Arabia in particular. China, perhaps America’s serious competitor on the world stage, gets off lightly, with the US leader saying he’d prefer a stable China than a chaotic one. And Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader considered a pariah around much of the globe, gets a remarkably polite assessment from Obama, who dubs him “scrupulously polite, very frank” in their meetings.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see another world leader with a supposedly more “special” relationship with the US being repeatedly criticised and held up as a foreign policy headache. His name is David Cameron, and by Goldberg’s telling, the US president feels that the British prime minister’s hand plays heavily in a number of Obama’s biggest foreign policy debacles.
Syria, perhaps the defining crisis of Obama’s time, is an obvious moment of Obama-Cameron friction. In summer 2013, Goldberg explains, Cameron hoped to push Obama into military action after the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, was found to have gassed his own civilians. “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch,” Cameron had said at a joint news conference earlier in the year, indicating his willingness to militarily intervene to force Assad out.
Obama was initially willing, too, but a confluence of factors slowly began to change his mind. One key moment: on Aug 29, 2013, Cameron had called for a parliamentary vote on a Syrian military strike. After eight hours of debate, Cameron lost the vote. It was a remarkable, humiliating (though surprisingly rarely remembered) defeat for a British political leader. “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said after the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”
In Goldberg’s telling of the story, Cameron’s historic loss was a key factor in Obama’s own decision process on Syria — Obama describes it as a “failure” on behalf of Cameron.
Another post-Arab Spring conflict inspires even harsher words from Obama. The US president talks at length about his decision to take the back seat in an intervention in Libya in 2011 and let America’s European and Gulf allies take the lead. This plan failed, the president tells Goldberg, in large part because these allies didn’t live up to their side of the bargain. “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he explains.
Of the two major European powers involved in the Libyan campaign, France gets something of a pass: President Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out of office the next year, after all. Britain’s leader gets no such escape, with the president telling Goldberg that Cameron stopped paying attention to Libya and that he became “distracted by a range of other things”. This lack of attention, Obama bluntly implies, is one key factor in why Libya is such a “s---show” now.
Obama’s comments about Cameron have made newspaper front pages in Britain, with The Independent running the headline “Obama savages Cameron over Libya”, while The Times of London called the comments “extraordinary”. It certainly is extraordinary. For decades, the United States and Britain have enjoyed a diplomatic relationship so close that Winston Churchill dubbed it a “special relationship” unlike the others in the world (ironically the 70th anniversary of that comment just passed). British and American leaders have long presented a united front to the world.
But Obama doesn’t seem one for foreign policy tradition. Throughout The Atlantic article, he questions assumptions about America’s allies and enemies. The special relationship clearly came under the scrutiny of Obama, who repeatedly complains about other world powers who act of “free riders” on US power. Again, he has specifically targeted Britain, warning that the country couldn’t claim to have a special relationship unless it committed two per cent of its GDP to defence spending. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who later raised spending to meet this demand.
There may also be a lack of personal chemistry between the two leaders, despite the carefully choreographed press shots that accompany almost every meeting of the pair. While Obama comes from a mixed-race, single-mother background that may explain his lack of interest in orthodoxy, Cameron is about as establishment as you can get: He grew up wealthy, related to royalty and aristocracy and attended the best schools in Britain. Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was literally tortured by the British establishment that Cameron represents. It’s striking that Obama’s closest relationships with foreign leaders have often been with those from more humble backgrounds who rose up the ranks themselves, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or Australia’s Kevin Rudd.
For all this, the White House has been trying to downplay Obama’s comments about Cameron, contacting British outlets like the BBC to tell them that the relationship between Britain and the US remains “special and essential”. Perhaps this is because there may be another British-borne foreign policy headache later this year, when the country will vote on whether to leave the European Union. Cameron is a leading voice against leaving the EU and Obama, clearly worried about the implications, has given him vocal backing on that. Whether that vote could help bring the “special relationship” back together again or not remains to be seen.
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2016