Obama vs. Cameron: Dawn of Realism for the UK-US «Special Relationship»

Obama vs. Cameron: Dawn of Realism for the UK-US «Special Relationship»

A theme of my writings of late has been how unreliable, incompetent and untrustworthy the British State can be with friend and foe alike. Well, it would seem I am not the only one to hold highly critical views of how the British conduct their Governmental business from domestic to foreign policy.

The recent interview that President Obama gave to The Atlantic magazine brought into the open the frustrations, disappointment and mild contempt felt in the White House for the British specifically over the Libya intervention of 2011 and the subsequent mess which has developed in the country. The Atlantic interview was unusual for a sitting US President to deliver while in office, due to its direct and pointed criticism of key foreign allies, specifically the British Prime Minister David Cameron. President Obama correctly analyzed that the military intervention in Libya triggered by the impending blood bath in Benghazi in the spring of 2011 was driven by the Europeans in the form of the British and French Governments and that in the ensuing aftermath of the fall of Colonel Gaddafi not enough investment was put in place by London and Paris to contain and quell the chaos, even though they had promised they would take care of this.

In many respects the Libya intervention by the West was the last hurrah of the neo-conservatives, this time however their number where to be found more in Downing Street than the White House. One of the central tenants of neoconservative foreign policy, first given full license during the Bush administration of 2001-2005, was that America with Britain by her side, should set out to remake the world in the political image of the United States and United Kingdom by exercising military power to invade countries, remove their dictatorial governments and then depending on how hard core a neocon one was, either make a huge commitment to occupy the invaded country and «nation build» adding to further strain on public expenditure back home, or cut and run leaving behind the mess for the locals to clear up.

What was so striking about President Obama’s Atlantic interview was the amount of blame he apportioned, almost exclusively, on David Cameron rather than the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Indeed, the historical symbolism of heavily criticizing such a supposedly close ally as Britain during the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s speech when he first introduced the term «Special Relationship» into diplomatic lexicon is significant. The US-UK «Special Relationship» has always been more special to the British than the United States. As the British Empire went into inexorable decline during World War II, the United States emerged as the new dominant superpower alongside the USSR. While the British began to grapple with their reduced global status and power, one feature of international relations allowed them to delude themselves that they still possessed the influence and power they had enjoyed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the alliance with the burgeoning superpower of Washington DC. However, as the former European Commission President Roy Jenkins has pointed out, a great deal of the so-called «Special Relationship» is a delusion successive British Governments have clung to in order to aggrandize themselves.

The criticism that President Obama meted out against David Cameron is entirely justified. After the dangerous ideological madness and carnage wrought by the neoconservative cabal around President George W Bush, Mr Obama rightly wanted to restore sanity and return American foreign policy to the mainstream. The Obama Doctrine in foreign affairs emerged as a traditional Democratic foreign policy in the mold of the liberal, humanitarian internationalism of the Carter and Clinton administrations with a dash of Nixonian realism. There would be none of the neoconservative inspired military unilaterism and wars of choice to make the world «safe for democracy» along the lines of Woodrow Wilson and while the United States would still remain the leader of the Western Atlantic Alliance and the «free world» it would expect greater burden sharing and action from its European and to a lesser extent Middle Eastern allies in dealing with regional security challenges, hence the phrase «leading from behind».

After the deeply damaging and draining experience of the botched Iraq intervention of 2003, President Obama wanted to avoid further entanglements in foreign countries through direct military intervention preferring to emphasize multi-lateral diplomacy and international problem solving coalitions rather than regime change. However, in Mr Cameron the President found an ally rather like George W Bush in the sense that Cameron knew little of foreign affairs and foreign policy before he became Prime Minister and was considered a lightweight by much of the foreign and national security policy community in Britain and around the world. Cameron was viewed by the US State Department as being very much a domestic politician.

Thus, having little understanding of international relations and Global Power Politics and little experience of foreign affairs Cameron was susceptible to the influence of those who set out to mold him in their foreign policy image. One such Cabinet Minister – who was a Trustee of the Henry Jackson Society – which was set up to defend the 2003 invasion of Iraq and promote a British neoconservative foreign policy akin to that pursued by George W Bush, went by the name of Michael Gove, who the Prime Minister has allegedly described as «nuts». Gove, a staunch defender of the Iraq War and all things neoconservative, was a leading advocate for intervening in Libya just as he had been for invading Iraq and now today is campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union and with it cause massive international instability and disruption during one of the most challenging times in post-war European history.

Despite warnings from his then Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards and the former Head of MI6 that toppling Gaddafi was not in the British national interest and could lead to even greater chaos in the region, Cameron proceeded gung ho on waging a military campaign in Libya and along with then French President Nicholas Sarkozy persuaded President Obama to engage American military might along with other NATO allies. The caveat which sold the whole venture to the Obama administration was that it would be the British and French who would stabilize the country in the aftermath. Unfortunately for the Libyan people the British never made good on that pledge whether through lack of ability or political expediency. Curiously the British Government spent £320 million on bombing Libya but only £25 million on stabilizing the country. For President Obama this failure to uphold the terms of post-war reconstruction and stabilization in Libya perhaps has only served to confirm and reinforce his coolness towards the British.

President Obama is no Anglophile. One of his first acts upon assuming command of the Oval Office was to have removed the bust of Winston Churchill given by Tony Blair to George W Bush. This is entirely understandable given the fact the British during the Churchill Government of the early 1950s tortured Mr Obama’s grandfather in Kenya during their suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion. Then when Gordon Brown made his first visit to the Obama White House he was given in the official diplomatic exchange of gifts an insulting set of DVDs which did not even work in the UK. In his memoirs Mr Obama discussed his aversion to a British businessman he was unluckily sat next to on a plane. It would seem a pattern has emerged of mild disdain for the UK on the part of President Obama which finally burst full throttle from the President’s mouth in his Atlantic magazine interview.

One criticism of Cameron made by the President in the interview is also a point I have been consistently making over the last few years which is that David Cameron is no strategist, rather a mere tactician. As President Obama said of Cameron regarding Libya «he [Cameron] seemed to become distracted by a range of other things». Strategists do not become distracted by other issues. That is the hallmark of a tactician who has no over-arching, strategic vision. A tactician will flail around moving from one issue to the next with no consistent focus on the «big picture» as they do not have a sense or vision of a strategic «big picture». The criticism of Cameron and by extension British foreign policy has not been solely limited to outsiders. Even top ranking UK military officials such as the former Chief of the Defence staff General Sir David Richards when advising the PM during the build up to the Libya campaign is reported to have told the Prime Minister that: «being in the Combined Cadet Force at Eton» did not qualify him to decide complex military operations.

I think after this experience and with the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK, the next US President would be wise to conduct a full scale re-evaluation of the US-UK partnership, dispensing once and for all with the notion of a «special relationship» and making it quite clear to the British they have got to up their game and get their house in order if they want to be taken seriously as a professional international political partner. Many Americans I have met who have had experience of working with the British in Whitehall have found it to be a deeply frustrating and bizarre situation.

They find the working culture in Whitehall unprofessional, lazy, incompetent and inefficient, run along the lines of the old boys’ network and a stuffy gentlemen’s club, something out of the 19th century rather than the 21st. They despair at the lack of proper HR structures and the lack of joined-up communication, dynamism, and the strange communication quirks of the British which include a lack of directness, talking in riddles and codes constantly, an inability to express themselves directly instead retreating into passive aggressive behavior rather than being up front and open.

Take for example the Royal United Services Institute, founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831 which has Her Majesty The Queen as it’s Patron and lists various former Heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and other UK national security and defence policy officials and military brass among its leadership network and which purports to be an «independent» think tank located in front of the Ministry of Defence and across the road from Downing Street and the Foreign Office, but in reality is an intelligence front and extension of the British security and military State. For the first time in the 185 year history of the Institute a non-British citizen, an American, formerly of the US State Department and Pentagon, has been appointed Director-General of RUSI.

This appointment almost certainly had been signed off at some level within the British Government given RUSI’s sensitive role within Whitehall and access to classified information. Clearly the Americans are taking a much closer and active involvement in the running, on the ground, of British security, foreign policy and military matters and clearly it takes an American to clean house and put an organization like RUSI on a more professional footing with sounder finances given the worrying and embarrassing level of extremely high debts and unstable finances of RUSI which is even more concerning given the fact it is a Royal Institute. 

Tags: Libya  Middle East  UK  US  Cameron  Obama