The recent lambasting of British Petroleum is only the latest in a growing number of anti-British slights by President Barack Obama.
Despite its name, BP has not been known as British Petroleum for almost a decade. And the British government has not had any involvement in the company since it was privatized in 1987.
Yet Obama has been insistent that it is ‘British Petroleum’ that is at fault and British Petroleum’s ass that, in his now notorious phrase, ‘he wants to kick’.
And kick it he has, with BP’s shares – in which one in every six pounds of British retirement funds is placed – plummeting as a result. The kick has had an effect, but it has also caused a rebound.
Reaction to the President’s remarks in Britain has been one of sheer horror. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, described “something slightly worrying about the anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America. I would like to see a bit of cool heads rather than endlessly buck-passing and name-calling. When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves.”
The former Conservative Party chairman under Margaret Thatcher, Lord Tebbit, meanwhile said: ‘The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill – so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political Presidential petulance against a multinational company.’
If these reactions seem high-pitched it is probably because British politicians have been surprised by a number of less than cordial soundings from the US since Obama became President.
Whether they have been intended or not, the picture they begin to paint of Obama’s view of Britain is enough to cause concern.
In his last Lord Mayor’s Banquet speech, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed almost desperate to please as he sought to reinforce relations with Obama by reference to Britain’s greatest leader. “Winston Churchill”, Brown said, “described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom, and the rights of Man – of what Barack Obama described in his election night speech as the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope,” the Prime Minister said.” That’s a flattering person to be quoted in the same breath with. But it started to seem like if this was the beginning of a romance, it was a distinctly one-sided affair.
For of course first of all there was the handing back of the Churchill bust which Tony Blair had leant to George W. Bush after 9/11. Well, it wasn’t very graciously done, some people thought, but it had been a loan and had to be handed back sometime.
But next came the rather noticeably unequal March 2009 gift-exchange. Desperate in the hope that some of the new President’s shine would rub off on him Brown headed over to Washington with a pen holder made from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, a sister ship to HMS Resolute whose timbers provided the desk in the Oval office of the US President and a ship which had been active in British anti-slavery missions off Africa.
Obama returned the favor by giving Brown a set of DVDs, none of which would work in the UK Prime Minister’s DVD player. The British press viewed this not just as a snub but as a signal that the care that Brown had taken in choosing his gift had barely been reciprocated one iota. It seemed the Presidential equivalent of giving some petrol station flowers on Valentines Day because everything else had been sold.
Then at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009 Gordon Brown’s aides were forced to ask five times for a meeting with the President. At the UN General Assembly summit in New York that same month Gordon Brown had to make do with a fifteen-minute walk-and-talk meeting with Obama in a kitchen.
These may be signals, but they are signals that people believe to be piling up into a picture. Britain is one of the few NATO allies to have actually stepped up its troop commitments in Afghanistan. And it is taking a higher proportion of casualties than most other countries. This would ordinarily be a sacrifice that an American President would ordinarily greet with a morsel of favoritism.
But the instinct for the Atlantic relationship seems absent in this President. In February of this year a diplomatic row broke out over the Falkland Islands.
These islands, off the coast of Argentina, were dear enough to the British that we fought a costly war to expel the Argentineans from them when they took them by force in 1982. But by 2010 Britain was forced to issue at least three formal diplomatic protests to the United States within a month after a State Department official called the Falklands by their Argentine name: `Las Malvinas’. As the row developed, the Obama administration refused to endorse British claims to sovereignty over the Islands, insisting, instead, on a position of conspicuous neutrality.
As a senior Whitehall official was quoted as saying: ‘After everything we have done with the Americans since September 11, the least we expected was a bit of moral support from Washington.”
The question that more and more people in Britain are now asking is not so much whether the special relationship is dead, but whether it has simply been downgraded. Some commentators talk of Obama being furiously anti-British, inspired by the alleged mistreatment of his grandfather by the British in Kenya. Others point to a realpolitik rhetoric of regional alliances and emerging powers.
As the bestselling author of 'A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900', historian Andrew Roberts, puts it:
‘Barack Obama is the least naturally pro-British of any of the 12 postwar presidents. He is under the (probably mistaken) impression that his grandfather was tortured by the British during the Mau Mau emergency, and therefore sees Winston Churchill – the PM at the time of the Kenyan troubles - as a symbol of evil imperialism more than a hero of anti-Fascism. The BP reaction is all of a piece with this lack of sentimental attachment to the Special Relationship. Prime Minister David Cameron has got his work cut out if Obama is to be persuaded of the special role the English-speaking peoples play in defending Western Civilisation.’
The Special Relationship was something that US President’s used to have in their bloodstream – a deep and inbuilt historical realisation that Britain and America are not just natural allies but essentially meant for each other.
From Thatcher and Reagan to Bush and Blair, British Prime Ministers have grown used to this arrangement. Perhaps David Cameron, is beginning to learn the hard way that for President Obama Britain is not a partner in a special relationship but simply one in a line-up of potentially disposable mistresses.
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