Meanwhile, it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see another world leader with a supposedly more "special" relationship with the United States being repeatedly held up as a foreign policy headache. His name is David Cameron, and by Goldberg's telling, the U.S. president feels that the British prime minister's hand plays heavily in a number of Obama's biggest foreign policy debacles.
Syria, perhaps the defining crisis of Obama's time, is an obvious moment of Obama-Cameron friction. In summer 2013, Goldberg explains, Cameron hoped to push Obama into military action after the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, was found to have gassed his own civilians. “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch," Cameron said at a joint news conference earlier in the year, indicating his willingness to militarily intervene to force Assad out.
Obama was initially willing, too, but a confluence of factors slowly began to change his mind. One key moment: On Aug. 29, 2013, Cameron had called for a parliamentary vote on a Syrian military strike. After eight hours of debate, Cameron lost the vote. It was a remarkable, humiliating (though surprisingly rarely remembered) defeat for a British political leader. “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said after the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”
In Goldberg's telling of the story, Cameron's historic loss was a key factor in Obama's own decision process on Syria – Obama describes it as a "failure" on the part of Cameron.
Another post-Arab Spring conflict inspires even harsher words from Obama. The U.S. president talks at length about his decision to take the back seat in an intervention in Libya in 2011 and let America's European and Persian Gulf allies take the lead. This plan failed, the president tells Goldberg, in large part because these allies didn't live up to their side of the bargain. "I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya's proximity, being invested in the follow-up," he explains.
Of the two major European powers involved in the Libyan campaign, France gets something of a pass: President Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out of office the next year, after all. Britain's leader gets no such escape, with the president telling Goldberg that Cameron stopped paying attention to Libya and that he became “distracted by a range of other things.” This lack of attention, Obama bluntly implies, is one key factor in why Libya is such a "s---show" now.
Obama's comments about Cameron have made newspaper front pages in Britain, with the Independent running the headline "Obama savages Cameron over Libya," while the Times of London called the comments "extraordinary." It certainly is extraordinary. For decades, the United States and Britain have enjoyed a diplomatic relationship so close that Winston Churchill dubbed it a "special relationship" unlike the others in the world (ironically the 70th anniversary of that comment just passed). British and American leaders have long presented a united front to the world.
But Obama doesn't seem one for foreign policy tradition. Throughout the Atlantic article, he questions assumptions about America's allies and enemies. The special relationship clearly came under the scrutiny of Obama, who repeatedly complains about other world powers who act as "free riders" on U.S. power. Again, he has specifically targeted Britain, warning that the country couldn't claim to have a special relationship unless it committed 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending. "You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who later raised spending to meet this demand.
There could also be a lack of personal chemistry between the two leaders, despite the carefully choreographed press shots that accompany almost every meeting of the pair. While Obama comes from a mixed-race, single-mother background that may explain his lack of interest in orthodoxy, Cameron is about as establishment as you can get: He grew up wealthy, related to royalty and aristocracy and attended the best schools in Britain. Obama's Kenyan grandfather was literally tortured by the British establishment that Cameron represents. It's perhaps notable that Obama's closest relationships with foreign leaders have often been with those from more humble backgrounds who rose up the ranks themselves, such as Germany's Angela Merkel or Australia's Kevin Rudd.
For all this, the White House has been keen to downplay Obama's comments about Cameron. "Prime Minister Cameron has been as close a partner as the president has had, and we deeply value the U.K.'s contributions on our shared national security and foreign policy objectives, which reflect our special and essential relationship," Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said in a statement to WorldViews. "With respect to Libya, the president has long said that all of us – including the United States – could have done more in the aftermath of the Libyan intervention. More broadly, the U.K. has stepped up on a range of issues, including PM Cameron's leadership within NATO in terms of meeting the 2 percent commitment and pressing the other members of the alliance to do so at the Wales Summit."
A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Washington also defended Cameron's record on Libya, arguing that the intervention was "the right thing to do" and that Britain had "sought to support the people of Libya and stability in that country" after the conflict. “The White House have been clear that the Prime Minister has been as close a partner as the President has had, and they deeply value the UK's contributions on our shared national security and foreign policy initiatives," the spokesperson added.
Either way, before Obama leaves office, there will be at least one other test for the relationship. This summer, the British public will vote on whether their country should leave the European Union. Cameron is a leading voice against leaving the E.U., and Obama, clearly worried about the implications, has given him vocal backing. Whether that vote could help bring the "special relationship" closer together again remains to be seen.
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