For the past two years I have published a list of Barack Obama’s biggest insults against America’s foremost ally, Great Britain, during his time in office. Here is an updated list to accompany President Obama’s hosting this week of an official visit to the White House by the British Prime Minister, as a reminder that a basketball trip to Ohio and a bells and whistles state dinner do not erase a track record of major insults by the Obama administration since it took office.
Mr Obama has been by far the most anti-British president in modern American history, kicking off his presidency with the removal of a bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, and continuing today with a policy of knifing Britain in the back over the Falklands. He will be all smiles and full of platitudes this week when he greets Mr Cameron in Washington, but the fact remains that for President Obama the Special Relationship has been largely a blip on his teleprompter screen, in his eyes an anachronism of a bygone era, rather than the engine of the free world.
Here are the 2012 rankings:
1. Siding with Argentina over the Falkland Islands
This has remained the top insult for three years running. For sheer offensiveness it’s hard to beat the Obama administration’s brazen support for Argentina’s call for UN-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands, despite the fact that 255 British servicemen laid down their lives to restore British rule over the Islands after they were brutally invaded in 1982. In a March 2010 press conference in Buenos Aires with President Cristina Kirchner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Argentina a huge propaganda coup by emphatically backing the position of the Péronist regime.
In June 2011, Mrs Clinton slapped Britain in face again by signing on to an Organisation of American States (OAS) resolution calling for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, a position which is completely unacceptable to Great Britain. To add insult to injury, the Obama administration has insisted on using the Argentine term “Malvinas” to describe the Islands in yet another sop to Buenos Aires.
In 2012, against a backdrop of growing aggression by Argentina, including efforts to blockade international vessels fishing in Falkland waters, the Obama administration continued to undercut Britain. In January and February the State Department again supported direct negotiations between Argentina and Britain, parroting the line taken by Buenos Aires.
2. Calling France America’s strongest ally
In January last year, President Obama held a joint press conference at the White House with his French counterpart, literally gushing with praise for Washington’s new-found Gallic friends, declaring: “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people.” As I noted at the time:
Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the US president is difficult to fathom, and if the White House means what it says this represents an extraordinary sea change in US foreign policy. Nicolas Sarkozy is a distinctly more pro-American president than any of his predecessors, and has been an important ally over issues such as Iran and the War on Terror. But to suggest that Paris and not London is Washington’s strongest partner is simply ludicrous.
These kinds of presidential statements matter. No US president in modern times has described France as America’s closest ally, and such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French famously knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq.
3. Lecturing Britain on a federal Europe and undercutting British sovereignty
The Obama administration’s relentless and wrongheaded support for the creation of a federal Europe, from backing the Treaty of Lisbon to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), is a slap in the face for the principle of national sovereignty in Europe. While the Bush Administration was divided over Europe, the Obama team has been ardently euro-federalist. Hillary Clinton called the Lisbon Treaty “a major milestone in our world’s history”, and in an interview with The Irish Times in 2009 stated: “I believe [political integration is] in Europe’s interest and I believe that is in the United States’ interest because we want a strong Europe.” And Vice President Joe Biden has described Brussels as the “capital of the free world.”
Most insultingly, the Obama administration has sought to intervene in British policy towards the European project. The US Ambassador to London, Louis Susman, has warned Britain that “all key issues must run through Europe.” According to a report by The Parliament.com, in a private meeting with British MEPs at an event in the European Parliament in January 2011, Susman called for a stronger British commitment to the EU, emphatically warning against British withdrawal:
I want to stress that the UK needs to remain in the EU. The US does not want to see Britain’s role in the EU diminished in any way. The message I want to convey today is that we want to see a stronger EU, but also a stronger British participation within the EU. This is crucial if, together, we are going to meet all the global challenges facing us, including climate change and security.
4. Betraying Britain to appease Moscow over the New START Treaty
In February 2011, The Daily Telegraph broke a major story with damaging implications for the Special Relationship, revealing that Washington “secretly agreed to give the Russians sensitive information on Britain’s nuclear deterrent to persuade them to sign a key treaty.” According to The Telegraph report:
Information about every Trident missile the US supplies to Britain will be given to Russia as part of an arms control deal signed by President Barack Obama next week. Defence analysts claim the agreement risks undermining Britain’s policy of refusing to confirm the exact size of its nuclear arsenal.
A series of classified messages sent to Washington by US negotiators show how information on Britain’s nuclear capability was crucial to securing Russia’s support for the “New START” deal. Although the treaty was not supposed to have any impact on Britain, the leaked cables show that Russia used the talks to demand more information about the UK’s Trident missiles, which are manufactured and maintained in the US.
Washington lobbied London in 2009 for permission to supply Moscow with detailed data about the performance of UK missiles. The UK refused, but the US agreed to hand over the serial numbers of Trident missiles it transfers to Britain.
5. Airbrushing Britain from Europe
A striking feature of Obama administration speeches on Europe is the frequent omission altogether of Great Britain, as if it doesn’t even exist. A major recent example of this was an address in January 2012 by Philip H. Gordon, US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on “the state of transatlantic relations”, which completely left the British out of the discussion of the role of US allies in the Afghanistan and Libya operations, as well as the Iranian nuclear crisis. As I noted at the time:
It is a sad day when the most senior US official on Europe cannot even bring himself to acknowledge the vital role and huge sacrifices made by America’s closest partner on the battlefields of Afghanistan, while much of Europe barely lifts a finger in the war against the Taliban.
6. Throwing Churchill out of the Oval Office
It is hard to think of a more derogatory message to send to the British people within days of taking office than to fling a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office and send it packing back to the British Embassy – not least as it was a loaned gift from Britain to the United States as a powerful display of solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Obviously, public diplomacy is not a concept that carries much weight in the current White House, and nor apparently is common sense. Three years on, the Churchill bust incident continues to embarrass the Obama White House, and remains a sad symbol of this administration’s contempt for the Special Relationship as well as one of the greatest figures in British history.
7. Placing a “boot on the throat” of BP
The Obama administration’s relentless campaign against Britain’s largest company in the wake of Gulf oil spill was one of the most damaging episodes in US-UK relations in recent years, with 64 percent of Britons agreeing at the time that the president’s handling of the issue had harmed the partnership between the two countries according to a YouGov poll. The White House’s aggressive trashing of BP, including a threat to put a “boot on the throat” of the oil giant, helped wipe out about half its share value, directly impacting the pensions of 18 million Britons. This led to a furious backlash in the British press, with even London mayor and long-time Obama admirer Boris Johnson demanding an end to “anti-British rhetoric, buck-passing and name-calling”.
8. DVDs for the Prime Minister
This insult has featured in all three editions, not least because it remains a powerful example of breathtaking diplomatic ineptitude that would have shamed the protocol office of an impoverished Third World country. Readers of this blog will know that I have been heavily critical of Gordon Brown’s premiership, but whatever one thinks of his third-rate leadership, Brown travelled abroad not as a private individual but as the leader of America’s closest ally. He represented 62 million Britons including the Armed Forces, as well as a huge amount of British trade and investment with the United States. He was, however, treated extremely shabbily when he visited the White House in March 2009, and sent home with an assortment of 25 DVDs ranging from Toy Story to The Wizard of Oz – which couldn’t even be played in the UK.
9. Insulting words from the State Department
The mocking views of a senior State Department official following Gordon Brown's embarrassing reception at the White House in March 2010 says it all:
There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.
10. Confusing England with Great Britain
Perhaps less of an insult than an embarrassing indictment of Barack Obama’s Columbia and Harvard education, the president’s extraordinarily ignorant response to the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran last November, dubbing it the “English” Embassy, was the kind of elementary mistake that would have had America’s liberal press howling with derision had it been made a few years earlier by George W. Bush. As I wrote soon after the president’s gaffe:
It would be nice if the leader of the free world bothered to look at a map once in a while, or even paid a visit to the British Embassy in Washington, currently housing the Churchill bust that Mr. Obama unceremoniously threw out of the Oval Office soon after his inauguration… The White House will no doubt dismiss this latest faux pas by the president as a slip of the tongue, but it cannot disguise the fact that it has on many occasions treated Britain and other key allies with an air of disdain, and even contempt.