Coverage of the joint Obama-Cameron press conference understandably concentrated on the burgeoning IRS and Benghazi scandals, but it could hardly avoid topics that concerned David Cameron too. Hence the president was asked about the current turmoil in the Tory party over UK membership of the European Union. Since an almost obsessive support for the maximum possible British integration into “Europe” has been a firm State Department orthodoxy for nigh on 70 years, the president was always going to say something favorable about the UK-EU partnership. But his answer—which you can see here — was interesting all the same.
First, he had obviously been told not to make his support for the EU too forceful in case it sounded like ordering the Brits to get into line. So he waffled a good deal about this being a question for the British people. Second, he gave a straight-out endorsement of Cameron’s latest tactical position: don’t “leave” a relationship until you’ve tried and failed to “fix” it. This sounds like common sense, but in the UK-EU context it is equivalent to asking a firmly gay man to remain in a straight marriage with an aggressively heterosexual woman. They want such different things from their relationship that it cannot be honestly “fixed.” Third, Mr. Obama delivered a meandering reflection to the effect that British membership in the EU is an “expression” of its global influence and role and as such of importance to such a close ally as the U.S.
I must admit that I sympathized with him as he rambled worriedly around this third argument. He was trying to find words that would reconcile his briefing on the first point (don’t order the Brits around) with his briefing on the third point (but hint that we won’t give them the time of day outside the EU). The points are incompatible, of course; hence his slow and cautious delivery (and slightly off-key argument). But it nonetheless confirmed the analysis in my earlier NRO piece that Cameron is hoping to get the U.S. to throw its weight into the scales on the side of the defeatist argument that Britain simply couldn’t cope as an independent self-governing country. It’s a shameful argument when it’s made by the British political establishment. It’s a contemptuous argument when made by an outsider. And that is probably why Obama was so uncomfortable in not quite making it.