Magazine | March 19, 2012, Issue

Cousinhood, Lately

Notes on Anglo-American relations in the time of Obama

In the middle of March, President and Mrs. Obama will host a state dinner for British prime minister David Cameron and his first lady, Samantha (known in Britain’s popular press as “Sam Cam”). It should be a fairly glamorous affair, and reported as so. The Obamas are about 50, and the Camerons several years younger than that. All four individuals have a sense of style. Photographers will be pleased.

Obama and Cameron may not be FDR and Churchill, or Ronnie and Maggie, but they are said to get on. No one would say, though, that the course of Anglo-American relations, in the time of Obama, has run smooth. Shall we have a review?

It all started a few days after Obama was sworn in, when he unceremoniously returned to the British government a bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office. Her Majesty’s Government lent it to President George W. Bush after 9/11, in one of its many shows of solidarity. Plus, wasn’t Churchillian determination and clarity called for at this hour?

From the White House, the bust went to the home of the British ambassador in Washington. An experienced Washington hand tells the following story: One night after dinner, the ambassador and an American visitor were looking at the bust. The ambassador remarked to his visitor, “We are keeping it here for the time being, trusting that your next president, whoever he is, will want it back.”

When Obama returned the bust, he stoked a longstanding anxiety in Britain: an anxiety about Americans’ regard for “the special relationship,” as Churchill dubbed the U.S.-U.K. alliance. The way a Telegraph writer put it was, “The rejection of the bust has left some British officials nervously reading the runes to see how much influence the UK can wield with the new regime in Washington.” Britons wanted to know, Who is this new president, and what makes him tick?

A writer in the Independent expressed a view that was found all over the British media: “It’s not surprising that Mr Obama didn’t want Churchill looking over his shoulder as it was Churchill who ordered the crackdown on the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya in 1952, a time when Mr Obama’s grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was labelled a subversive and thrown into detention.”

A few weeks after Bust-gate, Gordon Brown, then serving as prime minister, called on Obama. He brought with him a notably thoughtful gift: an ornamental penholder made from timbers of HMS Gannet, a Victorian anti-slaving ship. The press described Gannet as a sister ship of HMS Resolute, from which the famous Oval Office desk was made. In addition, Brown gave Obama a framed commission for Resolute and a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume biography of Churchill (oops).

And what did Obama give Brown, his guest? A box set of DVDs, containing classic American movies: Some Like It Hot, Raging Bull, Star Wars: Episode IV, and so on. In the main, British commentators were aghast at this gift, calling it cheesy, cheap, and unworthy. They pointed out that Brown wasn’t known as a film buff and that the discs were unplayable on British DVD players anyway. Did Obama mean to send another signal that the once-special relationship was to be downgraded?

#page#The Telegraph quoted an anonymous State Department official who said, in essence, that the Brits needed to get over themselves: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.” Whether a State Department official really used such undiplomatic language can’t be confirmed. But no language could more rattle our British cousins.

A few weeks after Brown’s visit, Obama went to London, where his schedule included the queen. He had a gift for her: an iPod loaded with various items, including some related to himself. These were photos of his inauguration and audio recordings of two of his speeches: his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and his inaugural address. Another gift, however, was without self-regard: Obama gave the queen a songbook signed by Richard Rodgers. She is known to be a fan of American musical theater.

It was during this visit, you may remember, that Touching-gate occurred. Michelle Obama put her arm around the queen, becoming one of the very, very few people to have touched the queen in public, in the course of a 60-year reign. Afterward, the palace said, No sweat. Besides, said some observers, the queen had made the first move.

In the fall of that year, 2009, came Kitchen-gate. World leaders were in New York for the opening of a U.N. session, and Obama had meetings scheduled with representatives from Japan, Russia, and China. Five times, Prime Minister Brown requested a meeting. Five times, he was rebuffed. Eventually, Obama agreed to a “walk and talk” through a kitchen after dinner. Brown’s people said the leaders’ discussion had lasted 15 minutes. The British press derided that as spin — pointing out that the kitchen wasn’t that big: One minute, tops.

Again, Americans rolled their eyes at British sensitivity. In a 2010 book about Brown, Anthony Seldon quotes Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago, as saying, “What do we have to do to convince them of the special relationship? Pictures of Gordon getting it on with Michelle in the Oval Office?” This is another statement that can’t be confirmed, but it certainly sounds like our Rahm.

Diplomacy can seem silly, with its symbols and sensitivities, but it is not unimportant, and Democrats used to fault George W. Bush mercilessly for his lack of diplomacy (in their indictment). He had “squandered our alliances,” they said, and we needed to “restore our alliances,” as well as America’s “good name.” Yet Bush enjoyed famously — to the Left, irksomely — warm relations with Britain’s Tony Blair, along with many other leaders.

In March 2010, a multiparty committee in the House of Commons said, in effect, Enough: We must no longer pretend that we’re as special to the Americans as they are to us. Britain needed “a more hard-headed political approach towards our relationship with the U.S.,” said the chairman of the committee, “with a realistic sense of our own limits and our national interests.” The committee even recommended that Britons abandon the very term “special relationship.”

Two months later, the U.S. House said, Not so fast. They passed a resolution affirming the special relationship, citing the Magna Carta, John Locke, Adam Smith, the Atlantic Charter, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more.

#page#During this same period, we had the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, occasioning some harsh rhetoric from President Obama about “British Petroleum,” as he called the company (though the company had been “BP” since the Nineties). This caused some heartburn in London. In January 2011, Obama declared, with the French president sitting next to him, “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.” Serious, serious heartburn.

Worse, though, was the impression left by documents revealed by WikiLeaks that the U.S. had compromised British nuclear secrets in order to get a deal with the Russians. The State Department said this was “bunk,” but the leaked documents were hard to wave off. More recently, Britain endured some upset over Afghanistan: Days after David Cameron assured the Afghan president that British troops would remain in Afghanistan through 2014, the Obama administration announced that, actually, Americans would be essentially through in 2013. This caught the Brits off guard.

Worst of all, from their point of view, is Obama’s position on the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas, as the Argentinians call them — and as the State Department sometimes calls them, much to Britain’s distress. The American position is one of neutrality, and also one that calls for negotiations between Britain and Argentina. The British position is, What is there to negotiate? It’s a matter of history and a matter of people’s self-determination. Besides, didn’t we just fight a war over this?

Obama had a happy visit with Cameron in May 2011, when Americans and Britons were fighting alongside one another in Libya, as well as elsewhere. This visit took place on Cameron’s home turf, London. In a joint statement, the two men said the Anglo-American alliance was not just a “special relationship” but an “essential relationship.” The only shadow over the visit was Toast-gate: when President Obama had trouble coordinating his toast of Queen Elizabeth with the orchestra’s playing of the national anthem. It was a painfully awkward moment, almost unbearable to watch. Obama was largely blameless, but if Bush had done it . . .

The upcoming state dinner at the White House should be a fine occasion, with well-coordinated toasts. And yet Brits, as the Daily Mail’s ace Toby Harnden says, will be on the lookout for every slight and half-slight. Late last year, Obama referred to “the English embassy” in Tehran, rather than “the British embassy.” This set tongues clucking and renewed suspicions of presidential antipathy to, and ignorance of, Britain. People can be touchy.

And presidents can be clumsy, as Obama has sometimes been. I feel sure he’s not an Anglophile — which is no sin. I’m also pretty sure he’s not an Anglophobe. Put it this way: Does he think less of Britain than do the combined faculties of Oxford and Cambridge, plus the archbishop of Canterbury? (A mischievous question, I realize.)

In the last three years, people on both sides of the Atlantic have intensely debated the special relationship: whether it exists, whether it should. I say yes (to both). This idea of a special relationship: Is it only for us romantics, nostalgists, sentimentalists, Churchill-holics, and reactionaries? Is it only for those with Elgar flowing through their veins? I think of the 179 British dead in Iraq, and the 398 British dead in Afghanistan. I also think that Anglo-American liberty means something — to everyone, everywhere, now as much as ever.

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