Commentary Magazine


The U.S. Needs a Reset Button for Britain

While President Barack Obama tries to improve U.S. relations with rogue states like Syria and Iran, he might want to ensure ties with our closest ally aren’t strained in the meantime. Damascus and Tehran will remain hostile as long as they’re ruled by Bashar Assad and Ayatollah Khamenei, but Britain has long been a reliable friend no matter who is in charge. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair forged a strong personal friendship despite their ideological differences, yet President Obama is off to an embarrassing start with his Downing Street counterpart.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt half snubbed on his visit to the U.S. a few days ago when he didn’t receive the customary press conference and dinner. According to London’s Daily Telegraph, the Obama administration says the president was too tired.

Presidents and prime ministers from all countries are exhausted most of the time. An excuse like that wouldn’t wash if President Manny Mori of Micronesia were blown off. I doubt very much that Prime Minister Brown was slighted on purpose, but an unnamed State Department official quoted in the Telegraph wants the British to believe the cool welcome is all they should have expected.

“There’s nothing special about Britain,” he reportedly said. “You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

The same as Somalia, Turkmenistan, and North Korea? Good grief. Great Britain is the mother country of the United States of America. School children know it. At least they knew it when I was a child. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. is so well-established it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. It’s not a Bush administration policy that’s up for review. It has existed longer than Barack Obama has been alive.

Rudeness, unfortunately, isn’t the end of it.

Mr Brown handed over carefully selected gifts, including a pen holder made from the wood of a warship that helped stamp out the slave trade – a sister ship of the vessel from which timbers were taken to build Mr Obama’s Oval Office desk. Mr Obama’s gift in return, a collection of Hollywood film DVDs that could have been bought from any high street store, looked like the kind of thing the White House might hand out to the visiting head of a minor African state.

Somebody needs to be fired. Even the head of Burundi deserves something nicer than what he could get for a dollar at a bootleg store in the market. It hasn’t been that long since Democratic Party support staff assisted the White House when foreign heads of state came to visit. Plenty of people in Washington know how this works. Surely Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows a few of her husband’s former staffers who can find a replacement.

Barack Obama campaigned as the worldly and sophisticated diplomacy candidate after President George W. Bush was castigated for “alienating” our allies. I wasn’t happy about strained ties between the U.S., France, and Germany during the Bush administration’s first term, but those relationships were repaired when the congenitally anti-American French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were replaced by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Chirac and Schroeder weren’t just opposed to American policies, which of course was their right. They campaigned on anti-American platforms. (Imagine an American candidate for president bashing the French on the stump.) President Bush had his work cut out for him with those two, and it said something about who was mostly at fault when voters in France and Germany corrected the problem before he left office.

I’m sure President Obama is tired. How could he not be? The job is exhausting. Just look at the “before” and “after” photos of recent American presidents. There’s no fault or foul there, but we shouldn’t hear about it. We shouldn’t read about it, especially not during the first 100 days. This diplomatic faux pas reflects badly on all of us, and it’s a bit disconcerting. If President Obama is too tired to properly meet with the British prime minister during a time of relative peace, what should we expect if he meets with, say, the Russian president during war time?