Barack Obama’s visit to Britain, brings with it plenty of chatter about the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. Coming as Britain prepares for a referendum on European Union membership, the visit has already kicked off a political bunfight about the Americans “ordering” Britons how to vote on June 23, with Obama to weigh in explicitly on why a Brexit would be a seriously bad idea.
But this neurosis about being bossed around by Washington misses the bigger point about how Obama sees Britain and its neighbours. Whenever he swings through Europe, he makes a public show of friendship and unity – but he clearly thinks the US is being exploited by a troublesome continent that relies on American power to shore itself up.
This is a misdiagnosis on his part. The issue here is not European fecklessness, but Obama’s imperative to gloss over his own foreign policy failings.
He can rightly claim credit for achievements such as the rapprochement with Cuba, a steady, pragmatic relationship with China, and a step back from the confrontation, aggression and abuse of the George W Bush years. The problem is that he wants the catastrophes that unfolded on his watch dismissed as beyond his control.
Normally a cautious president, Obama has taken a major political risk by adopting the commentator Jeffrey Goldberg as his confidant. Goldberg recently compiled his sessions with Obama into a lengthy “legacy” article, which saw Obama trying to define why he has been right about international affairs and why many others have been wrong. And it turns out he takes a dim view indeed of the US’s core European allies.
France’s Nicolas Sarkozy was apparently “keen to trumpet” France’s part in the Libyan campaign despite the US’s far bigger role. Other Europeans – with the exception of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, “one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects” – are passive and ineffective. Meanwhile, for Obama, Britain has simply not paid its fair share of the West’s defence burden, sheltering beneath the American military. When it came to Libya, for example, the prime minister, David Cameron, became “distracted” – allowing the country to sink into turmoil after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
This, Obama sees as an old problem. In the Goldberg piece, he summarised the post-1945 relationship between the US, Britain and Western Europe – from the Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union to today’s crises such as the Syrian conflict – with cutting dismissal:
What has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game….
Free riders aggravate me.
This accusation of “free riding” has been part of Washington’s rhetoric for years. Neo-conservative commentator Robert Kagan reduced the issue to an alpha-male insult: “Americans Are from Mars, Europeans Are from Venus”. Robert Gates, defence secretary under both George W Bush and Obama, declared a divide “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burden of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership … but don’t want to share the risks and costs". His successor in the Obama administration, Leon Panetta, warned that Europe’s reticence over defence spending would “hollow out” NATO.
But Obama’s riff on the old “free rider” theme is especially vinegary – and it’s a very particular take on reality.
True, he reportedly told Cameron that Britain has to pay “its fair share” on defence. But overall, European expenditure has risen: Britain has surpassed the NATO spending threshold of 2% of GDP, others in Europe are approaching the target, and Germany is among those increasing allocating ever more resources to its military.
Meanwhile, Obama’s portrayal of “several decades” of European nonchalance is bad history, both for the Cold War and afterwards. Even if the Franco-German “Axis of Weasels” did not support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (as Obama himself famously didn’t), the Europeans were part of the the 1991 Gulf War, the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the international effort in Afghanistan after 9/11, and Obama-era operations in countries such as Mali.
No, the president’s invocation of the free rider insult stems far more from his concern over the history of the future – and how American failures in Syria and Libya will be represented.
Obama’s recollections in the Goldberg article pivot around his August 2013 decision not to intervene after Syria’s Bashar al-Assad killed more than 1,400 of his citizens in chemical attacks near Damascus. As Obama tells it, this was a stand by a valiant president against the arrogant, misguided chauvinists in his own administration – in Washington and abroad.
But there’s an obvious problem: hundreds of thousands more Syrians have been killed since August 2013, millions more have been displaced, Bashar al-Assad is still in power and no resolution is in sight.
So Obama has to look elsewhere for people to blame.
Come on everyone
First, he singled out “America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East”. Then he pointed the finger at the Europeans, invoking the case of the Libyan intervention in 2011:
It was precisely in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting that we, by design, insisted [on the operations]. It was part of the anti–free rider campaign.
In this version of history, Obama’s far-sighted strategy was not just a “humanitarian intervention”, saving many thousands of Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi’s military and prisons, but a training exercise in pulling one’s weight for benefit of the Europeans.
Except the mission went wrong after Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, not before it. It was in 2012 that the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed in an attack on Washington’s consulate in Benghazi. Libya still has two competing governments and many battling militias. Strikes and attacks by the Islamic State have crippled oil production, and the country is a launchpad for refugees coming to Europe – many of whom are still dying en route.
Because Obama cannot or will not blame himself, someone else has to be framed: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
In 1965, Obama’s predecessor Lyndon Johnson also labelled American’s supposed closest ally as a sponge. Infuriated that Britain would not commit troops to the Vietnam War, he rejected a request from the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, for a meeting in Washington: “We got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me.”
Obama may be holding fire on this sort of language on this trip, as he toasts the Queen at a birthday dinner. But his bitter sentiments are out in the open.