THE OBAMA VISIT: The Essentials of the Not-So-Special Relationship

The last days of May have seen a continuation of the sunny, rain-free weather that has blessed (or afflicted, depending on your point of view) the south-east of England for many weeks now. So London has been bathed in sunshine for the state visit of the Obamas, providing another opportunity for a replay of the pomp and circumstance of the royal wedding a month ago. For a government engaged in imposing the most draconian austerity measures in living memory, opportunities for distraction such as this must be seized with both hands. The public relations possibilities have been exploited shamelessly by prime minister Cameron who, together with Barack Obama,has been filmed for the news channels playing table tennis with pupils at a south London state secondary school. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama took a group of schoolgirls from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in north London (which she had visited in 2009) where many of the students are black and 54% qualify for free school meals, to Oxford University’s Christ Church College where hardly any students are black and most come from fee-paying “independent” (private) schools. The point of the exercises was to convince these children that they can achieve anything if they have the will, drive and determination to do so. But social inequality in Britain, already amongst the worst in the developed world, is growing. The unfortunate reality, which the propagators of “every fairy story can come true” myths prefer to ignore, is that most of the young people in the schools visited by the Obamas will grow up poorer, with fewer prospects than their parents’ generation.

There is no doubt that Barack and Michelle Obama are very popular in Britain. Kids from deprived ethnic minority and working class backgrounds, suddenly finding themselves in the presence of this glamorous, world-famous yet apparently accessible couple from backgrounds that seem similar to their own, are likely to be thrilled and inspired to believe that “anything is possible.” It is unimaginable that G.W. and Laura Bush could have pulled off anything like this. On Bush’s visits to London he had to be kept away from the public and from huge, angry demonstrations against his visits. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the anti-war demonstrations against Bush and Blair numbered hundreds of thousands to more than one million. This week, a demonstration outside Buckingham Palace called by the Stop the War Coalition was so small that it was easily ignored by the news media. This, despite the fact that Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, increased the use of drones in Pakistan, backed the Nato bombing of Libya, bypassed international law in the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden and failed to close down the US detention camp at Guatanamo. And the British government remains as closely allied to the United States in the so-called “special relationship” as it was when Tony Blair was in office.

Active opposition in Britain to US foreign policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and now Libya has all but collapsed since Obama took office. The same can be said for opposition to Britain’s alignment with the U.S. It has been estimated that the ConLib government’s involvement in Libya will cost the taxpayer over £1 billion if the war continues through the autumn. This at a time when we are told that painful cuts to public services must be endured as there is no money to fund them. How is such a remarkable change of fortune to be explained? A large part of it must be put down to the “Obama phenomenon”. For a prominent world leader to be more popular abroad than in his or her own country is nothing new. In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev was more popular in Europe than in the Soviet Union and Margaret Thatcher was more popular in the United States than she was in Britain. Obama seems to be more popular in Britain than in the United States. Part of the reason for this is that the violent hatred borne him by the Tea Party movement and other sections of the Republican right-wing is regarded here as motivated by racist bigotry. It serves to confirm the opinion amongst liberals that large numbers of Americans prefer as president an inarticulate semi-literate to an eloquent intellectual tribune – especially if the latter is black. 

Such is the fascination with Obama that the professional political class here jostles to be seen in his company. Cameron hopes that his visit will have done the government – and him in particular - a power of good. The president’s arrival from Ireland was preceded by a joint article in the Times on the 23rd May. This was intended to convey the impression of an identity of aims and interests. It amounted to little more than a string of predictable platitudes which will serve the purpose of the moment but will be forgotten very soon. “We are two different countries but our destination must be the same; strong and stable growth, reduced deficits and reform of our financial systems…so that they will never again be open to the abuses of the past.” At the very best this is wishfulness. They do not see eye to eye over the way to tackle budget deficits. Cameron wants Obama’s support for the speed and depth of his cuts; Obama has to face a hostile Congress that wants him to cut deeper and faster. Talk about reforms to the financial system to avoid the abuses of the past is pie in the sky. The banks have been let off the hook, pretty much guaranteeing that the abuses will recur. In Britain the “deficit reduction” policies, far from ensuring “strong and stable growth” have already resulted in no growth – the most likely prospect for the foreseeable future.

A main purpose of the Times article and the joint appearances and speeches is to assert once again that the “special relationship” is alive and well. It has now been re-branded the “essential relationship”. The term is equally vacuous, but it is intended to serve as a useful PR exercise which, it is hoped, will play to the advantage of both leaders with their own electorates. The media coverage of the Obamas at Buckingham Palace as guests of the queen should, it is hoped, play well with the US domestic audience. For his part, Cameron hopes that some of the Obama presidential magic will brush off on him, enhancing his delusion that he is an important world statesman. The “special relationship” is all show with no substance. To call it “essential” is intended to suggest that it is crucial; that the UK plays a vital part with the US on the world stage. From the US point of view, whatever the protestations to the contrary, it is the cost-free indulgence of a declining post-imperial European power for whom there remains a cultural sentiment based on shared language.

An earlier Letter from the UK argued that the idea of a special relationship went back to Churchill’s 1941 meeting with FDR which produced the Atlantic Charter. Following World War Two, Britain, together with the other European “great powers” was relegated to the ranks of the second and third class. Soon, the British Empire, for which Churchill had fought so stubbornly, was no more. Ever since, successive British governments have sought solace for their imperial decline by attaching themselves to the apron-strings of the great English-speaking power across the Atlantic; the former colony that they liked to think had inherited the mantle of the British Empire. Today it is all patent nonsense.

Not only is Britain of no real consequence globally; the United States is also well past its prime as an imperial power. The rising powers are China and India. Yet if the posturing of Cameron and Obama were taken seriously one would imagine that they were to be the arbiters of the destiny of the whole world in the years to come. Their joint article in The Times is redolent of deception, double standards and hypocrisy. This may be demonstrated by questioning a few of their ringing declarations and claims to moral rectitude. Addressing themselves to the situation in the Arab world, they warn autocratic regimes against the violent denial of the hopes of their citizens:

 “We will not stand by as their aspirations get crushed in a hail of bombs, bullets and mortar fire. We are reluctant to use force, but when our interests and values come together, we know we have a responsibility to act.” Note, “when our interests and values come together”. Presumably this has happened in Libya where they have unleashed a hail of bullets and bombs, but not in Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

“We will stand with those who want to bring light into dark, support those laying the building blocks of democracy”. We can only begin to imagine the benighted, repressive nature of a regime that imprisons women for the crime of driving a car. But Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of Western oil supplies. No “responsibility to act” there to help bring light into darkness.; likewise in Bahrain and Yemen. According to William Hague, the use of force by Assad of Syria is unacceptable. But it will be accepted.

In Afghanistan Obama says that “Nato has broken the Taliban momentum” and there will “soon begin a transition to an Afghan lead.” Not according to the best informed opinion on the war there. This wishful optimism completely belies the actual situation on the ground. And with regard to the Israeli/Palestinian stalemate Obama and Cameron say “We stand united in our support for a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine.” This can mean anything or nothing. If it means that Obama and Cameron mean to stand firm on the stated commitment to support a territorial solution on the basis of the pre-1967 borders and are determined to resist Netanyahu’s certain attempt to sabotage this, then that would be progress. But we can be sure that they won’t. It will be interesting to see how the champions of democracy react to the UN General Assembly vote next September on the question of Palestinian statehood.

But it may not be too unrealistic to hope that the continuing Arab revolution will slip beyond the control of the Western powers. If the democratic movement is allowed to take its course, it may succeed in ending the deadlock of decades and breaking the grip not only of the despotic Arab rulers but also of the Western backers and armourers who have for so long underpinned their power.