The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Obama/Brown: Phoning It In

I initially sent this to WaPo a couple days ago as an op-ed application. They didn't accept it, but at least they got back to me, which from their auto-response seemed rare enough ("if you don't get a response in a week, you can assume we didn't publish it.."). Here it is:

Gordon Brown’s visit to Washington last week Tuesday has been nothing less than a media disaster for the embattled British Prime Minister. These things are usually relatively innocuous – President Obama’s meetings with Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Taro Aso were unremarkable – but things have conspired to make the British press treat Brown’s visit as a continuation of a national joke at his expense.

Obama, it seems, snubbed Brown. He did not hold a grand press conference in the rose garden, that was canceled due to the snow, in what one British journalist has called Obama’s ‘diplomatic version of the coitus-declining headache hinting that the "special relationship" has already progressed, after that quick stop at "special partnership", to "special marriage".’

Did I mention? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s casually terming his country’s ties with the U.K. It has also brought on an onslaught of unflattering romance analogies. The BBC noted that 'Gordon Brown looked as nervous as someone on a first date in his meeting with the president.' Politico summed up the British press's attitude to the whole affair: 'He's just not that into you.' Brown's dignity has not been helped by the fact that after speaking with Obama on British sacrifices in Afghanistan and the dire need for a 'Global New Deal', the President's next meeting that afternoon was with the Boy Scouts of America.

It’s all mostly harmless meanness, though obviously chastening for Brown to have his big moment meeting with the First Black POTUS and addressing the U.S. Congress in the midst of a global crisis (an honor relatively few British PMs have) ruined by the jeering British commentariat. Was it really too much to hope for the painfully-dreary-eyed-looking Brown to bask in a little of Obama's reflected glory? A Nixon or a Chirac could always count on foreign leaders and crises to give them statesmanship points..

As though all this wasn't bad enough, it has recently come out that Brown gave the President a penholder made from the timber of the 19th Century anti-slavery gunship the Gannet. Nice! How did Obama return the favor? With a 25-DVD set of classic American movies including Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz. Now, if Obama really doesn't care for Brown to think of something not totally half-assed, don't they have, like, people in State whose job it is think of stuff like this?

However trivial these 'snubs', people have found signs that Obama's coldness is not merely towards Brown personally, but to Britain itself. Obama unceremoniously returned that hideous bust of Winston Churchill in the White House (put their by George Bush) to the British and replaced it with one of Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s grandfather, they say, was tortured by the British, no less.

Is the Anglo-American magic gone? The Daily Telegraph ominously warns as much. The Heritage Foundation warns of the dire consequences of undermining the Special Relationship (including heightened Euro-Franco-German influence in NATO). At the risk of aligning myself with the forces of evil, I agree that Obama, whatever his own feelings, is appearing a little too cavalier. It is not good diplomacy.

I have no inordinate respect for British foreign policy. It has an almost wholly destructive role in Europe and lacks any kind of international ambition beyond shadowing U.S. foreign policy. From a U.S. point of view, however, this is nothing to complain about. The fact is, militarily at least, the British are the only allies worth a damn in Europe. The French are unreliable due to their own ambitions. The other Europeans, whatever the merits, have decided that their national security is not contingent on them seriously investing in forces that can be projected overseas. In terms of manpower and equipment, British contributions to U.S. missions are greater than the whole of Continental Europe.

It is not clear to me why Britain so different in that way. The British public doesn't give two hoots about U.S. foreign policy. Frankly I think the reasons are really base. British and French leaders live on the illusion of touching History. French Presidents (used to?) get their kicks by contemplating the power of their Bomb (Eg: blowing up Mururoa). British Prime Ministers – Churchill, Thatcher, Blair – get misty-eyed when Americans raise their glasses to them. All rather queer. But it is not the President's role to question why, but to cultivate this sort thing. Obama is an international superstar in many countries, but that glory is fleeting, you don't keep friends by being inconsiderate.


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