Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-British relations

Special Relationships

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain. Read More

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.

For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):

When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.

In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”

And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:

The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.

Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).

President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)

Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.

Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.

The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.

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Re: Where’s Winston?

Last week, I noted that White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer claimed to have caught columnist Charles Krauthammer in a gaffe about the bust of Winston Churchill that sat in the Oval Office prior to Barack Obama becoming president. Pfeiffer said Krauthammer was wrong to say it had been returned to the British Embassy and that it was instead merely lodged in a different though less prestigious spot in the White House. Though I pointed out that Krauthammer was right on the symbolism of the removal of the bust from the Oval Office as it signified the president’s downgrading of the alliance with Britain, I wrongly assumed that Pfeiffer was right about the bust’s current location.

In fact, as Krauthammer pointed out in a blog post yesterday, the British Embassy confirms the president gave the bust back in January 2009. What’s more, the photo released by the White House claiming to be of President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron looking at the bust is one of them viewing a different bust of Churchill, not the one that had been in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who believed the White House’s easily discovered deception. Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times did too, but has since apologized and criticized the administration for its “weaselly follow-up” that “failed to acknowledge” what they had said was “false.”

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Last week, I noted that White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer claimed to have caught columnist Charles Krauthammer in a gaffe about the bust of Winston Churchill that sat in the Oval Office prior to Barack Obama becoming president. Pfeiffer said Krauthammer was wrong to say it had been returned to the British Embassy and that it was instead merely lodged in a different though less prestigious spot in the White House. Though I pointed out that Krauthammer was right on the symbolism of the removal of the bust from the Oval Office as it signified the president’s downgrading of the alliance with Britain, I wrongly assumed that Pfeiffer was right about the bust’s current location.

In fact, as Krauthammer pointed out in a blog post yesterday, the British Embassy confirms the president gave the bust back in January 2009. What’s more, the photo released by the White House claiming to be of President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron looking at the bust is one of them viewing a different bust of Churchill, not the one that had been in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who believed the White House’s easily discovered deception. Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times did too, but has since apologized and criticized the administration for its “weaselly follow-up” that “failed to acknowledge” what they had said was “false.”

The point of this kerfuffle was not so much where the bust was but the way Obama had chosen to symbolically “move on” from George W. Bush’s admiration for Churchill and how it reflected his disdain for traditional allies like Britain and Israel.  Contary to Rosenthal’s apology, that is a legitimate issue, and the administration’s fallacious response shows they understand this is a problem.

Pfeiffer owes Krauthammer a real apology, but so do I. I apologize for not only relaying the White House misinformation as truth but for trusting their word over the sage Krauthammer. I won’t make that mistake again.

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Where’s Winston? Not Where He Belongs

As part of its effort to try and show up Mitt Romney during his foreign tour, the White House is working overtime in a vain attempt to deny that President Obama has gone out of his way to de-emphasize the formerly “special relationship” that existed between the United States and Great Britain. The symbol of Obama’s disdain for Britain was his decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Some have wrongly claimed it was returned to the British Embassy but as Politico reports, the White House communications director blogged today to point out that it has merely been relegated to the part of the mansion where the First Family lives (and where David Cameron was marched to get a picture of him looking at the bust with the president in 2010).

That’s nice to know, because it will make it easier for Romney to make good on his promise to return it to a place of much greater prominence, but it also doesn’t quite debunk the charge that the removal of the bust is an apt symbol of Obama’s downgrading of the British alliance. To pretend that taking it out of the Oval Office was not a slight and an indication of Obama’s issues with the Brits is disingenuous. But as with the Democrats’ attempts to persuade Jewish voters to forget three years of slights to Israel, the administration’s cheerleaders have no shame about trying to re-write history. The substance of Obama’s attitude toward Britain is far more damning than any misplaced bust.

Read More

As part of its effort to try and show up Mitt Romney during his foreign tour, the White House is working overtime in a vain attempt to deny that President Obama has gone out of his way to de-emphasize the formerly “special relationship” that existed between the United States and Great Britain. The symbol of Obama’s disdain for Britain was his decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Some have wrongly claimed it was returned to the British Embassy but as Politico reports, the White House communications director blogged today to point out that it has merely been relegated to the part of the mansion where the First Family lives (and where David Cameron was marched to get a picture of him looking at the bust with the president in 2010).

That’s nice to know, because it will make it easier for Romney to make good on his promise to return it to a place of much greater prominence, but it also doesn’t quite debunk the charge that the removal of the bust is an apt symbol of Obama’s downgrading of the British alliance. To pretend that taking it out of the Oval Office was not a slight and an indication of Obama’s issues with the Brits is disingenuous. But as with the Democrats’ attempts to persuade Jewish voters to forget three years of slights to Israel, the administration’s cheerleaders have no shame about trying to re-write history. The substance of Obama’s attitude toward Britain is far more damning than any misplaced bust.

This is, after all, the administration that openly sided with Argentina about its attempts to revive its bogus claim to the Falklands Islands and denied there was anything “special” about the relationship with the U.K. It takes a special kind of chutzpah for Senator John Kerry (who is openly auditioning for the chance to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in a second Obama administration) to claim as he did today in the Huffington Post that it is Mitt Romney who has endangered the alliance by calling out Obama for his mistakes.

It is true Romney believes the United States should not allow its national interest to be held hostage by the fears of our European allies, even the Brits. Kerry is right about one thing. Since Barack Obama became president, Europe has not been allowed to hold America back, because on issues such as overthrowing Middle Eastern tyrants and confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, America’s allies have been more bold than the administration, not less.

Romney’s Olympic gaffe may have given the British and American press license to portray him as inept, but there is no covering up the fact that Obama entered office determined to distance himself from traditional allies like Britain and Israel. Indeed, he made no secret of this intention as he viewed it as part of a general policy of reversing any practice associated with his predecessor. Because George W. Bush was closely identified as a friend of Britain and Israel, Obama made it clear he was not and wound up embracing figures such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist who has done much to thwart U.S. interests.

The point here isn’t so much where Winston is these days, though his removal from the Oval Office cannot be represented as anything but a slight, as it is what happened to the special relationship in January 2009. For all of his troubles in London the past couple of days, there’s little doubt that a Romney administration would likely not only return the bust to its rightful place of prominence but also revive the alliances with Britain and Israel.

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British Press Pile On Romney

The British press had knives out for Mitt Romney before he even arrived in London, but the pile-on over his Olympics comment and some other (questionable) gaffes has still been surprisingly excessive. Says Piers Morgan on Romney’s Olympics remark: “He was just speaking the truth which can sometimes be rather unpalatable.” Morgan defended the candidate on CNN (via HotAir):

The issue isn’t whether Romney’s comments were accurate; it’s whether they were appropriate. Clearly the Brits didn’t think so, and that’s what counts. The Obama campaign is loving this, since it plays right into the whole “Romney is Bush” theme — voters don’t really want America to be despised in Europe like it was under G.W., right? Forget the fact that Obama’s insults have been far worse in degree: removing Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office, giving the Queen an iPod full of First Family photos, etc. He’s still a liberal Democrat, which apparently gets him some leeway with the British press.

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The British press had knives out for Mitt Romney before he even arrived in London, but the pile-on over his Olympics comment and some other (questionable) gaffes has still been surprisingly excessive. Says Piers Morgan on Romney’s Olympics remark: “He was just speaking the truth which can sometimes be rather unpalatable.” Morgan defended the candidate on CNN (via HotAir):

The issue isn’t whether Romney’s comments were accurate; it’s whether they were appropriate. Clearly the Brits didn’t think so, and that’s what counts. The Obama campaign is loving this, since it plays right into the whole “Romney is Bush” theme — voters don’t really want America to be despised in Europe like it was under G.W., right? Forget the fact that Obama’s insults have been far worse in degree: removing Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office, giving the Queen an iPod full of First Family photos, etc. He’s still a liberal Democrat, which apparently gets him some leeway with the British press.

The press has taken to calling Romney’s trip #Romneyshambles, and is now basically just creating stories out of thin air. One of the silliest ones so far has to be the Independent’s speculation that he forgot Labor Leader Ed Miliband’s name:

Romney also faced further embarrassment after he appeared to forget the name of Labour Leader Ed Miliband during a press conference.

Speaking with the leader of the opposition Romney said: “Like you, Mr. Leader, I look forward to our conversations this morning … and recognise, of course, the unique relationship that exists between our nations, our commitment to common values, our commitment to peace in the world and our desire to see a stronger and growing economy.”

As many Americans know, “Mr. Leader” is a term of respect used to refer to the party leaders in Congress — i.e. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It seems much more likely that Romney was using it in that context than that he forgot Miliband’s name. But it just goes to show you that the British press is so eager to play “gotcha” with Romney that it’s mixing up the media narratives for Republicans. Remember, it’s Bush who was supposed to be the dumb cowboy who blanked on names; Romney is supposed to be the money-obsessed robot who is too awkward for foreign diplomacy. Let’s at least get those memes straight.

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