More storm clouds appeared over the US-UK relationship this weekend and as late as this morning, London time. Today’s London Telegraph headlined “BP oil spill: Barack Obama tells David Cameron ‘I’m not out to wreck BP’”. The White House didn’t get the memo.
It seems that the president and the newly elected prime minister talked via phone sometime in the last few days and, among other topics, discussed the failed BP deepwater well now disgorging raw crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The prime minister’s office characterized the conversation as “warm and amicable.” Its spokesperson added, “The President made it clear he has had no interest in undermining BP’s [stock market] value.” It has been widely noted that BP is the most extensively held company in British pension portfolios. White House attacks on it have become a matter of personal and national concern throughout Britain.
But the White House reported the conversation differently. According to its spokesperson, the Telegraph wrote, BP was “only briefly mentioned” in the call and the two leaders agreed “that BP must do all it can to respond effectively to the situation.”
The president is, of course, responding to the howls of the mainstream media. The MSM is sure that, for the iconic leader they almost singlehandedly created, all will be well if he only shows anger toward the giant corporation. How can relations with a critical ally compete against the call of the wild ones on the networks and in the New York Times?
But is it too much to ask that this president copy Ronald Reagan (he’s had nice things to say about The Gipper) or (dreaded thought) George W. Bush and put national interest above even the most special of special interests, his own?
A keen knowledge of history is not a strength of this White House, what with mixing up the Constitution and that other document during the last State of the Union address, to name just one example. So you can understand why they might see the fabled US-UK Special Relationship as strictly a relic of the Second World War. In fact, while formally a product of the war, its roots go much deeper and its importance to us remains vital today.
Napoleon perceived the potential of a US-UK alliance just as the 19th century was beginning. While his reasons for selling Louisiana were tangled, as American Historian Henry Adams described it in his monumental History of the United States, 1801-1809, they included building up the United States to foment rivalry between it and England. For a time it worked. A sizable British army contingent could not make Waterloo in 1815. They were sailing home from America, having taken a thrashing at the hands of Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.
French fear continued long after Napoleon. British mid-century historian A.J.P. Taylor has noted that the French resisted entry of the US into World War I, concerned that it would lead to an enduring US-UK alliance. And it did.
British historian of the present generation, Andrew Roberts, in his brilliant Masters and Commanders, a history of the making of high strategy in World War II, details how the American military staff system was entirely overhauled in the months following Pearl Harbor. The goal was for it to fit seamlessly with the British system, as it does to this day. Similarly, the US and UK intelligence services continue to work in intimate cooperation.
But beyond oft-cited military and intelligence integration, British and US leaders have made each other better statesmen. For example, recent accounts have shown how Prime Minister Tony Blair maneuvered President Bill Clinton into standing firm in the Balkans in the late 1990s.
My point is that despite all the talk of the United States as a superpower, it is more correct to say that throughout the post-World War II period we have been the largest factor in a super-alliance. The US has a few anchor relationships that are essential to its effectiveness in the world, nations whose security and, in many respects, national purpose are nearly one with its own. Israel is one. By far the most intimate and essential of these is the UK.
And as with Israel, in the case of the UK, the administration has repeatedly and gratuitously challenged and insulted its leaders, now including Mr. Cameron.
Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is a big problem. And yes, the president was slow to recognize it. But fixing a presidential image is no excuse for further compromising a foundational foreign policy relationship. Mr. Obama would do well to keep this in mind when he meets with BP officials later this week.