I am not certain which move is more politically inept: U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron inviting President Obama to London to help the Remain in the European Union campaign or President Obama speaking so arrogantly while there.
Cameron should have learned by now that Obama is not the masterful politician of the press propaganda. He should also know that Brits have not been Obama fans since the early days of his presidency. Still, Obama’s comments about the referendum on a British exit from the EU, or Brexit, were particularly arrogant and uninformed. Chances are, this little PR idea did not assist the Remain camp, which will probably surprise viewers of the BBC and readers of The Atlantic, who apparently still think that threatening and empty proclamations from politicians equal leadership.
Background on Brexit
As part of Cameron’s reelection campaign in 2015, he pledged to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union. For self-rule reasons most Americans intuitively understand, a large segment of the British public did not like taking orders from Brussels. (See anything from British EU Parliament Member Dan Hannan.)
Cameron promised to push for special treatment reforms between the United Kingdom and EU, and once secured, he would campaign for remaining in the reformed EU. That summit happened earlier this year. The negotiations did not go as well as Cameron hoped. Basically, he capitulated on almost all points. (The Hannan tweets in that link are my favorite.) Therefore, the Leave campaign started stronger than Cameron and the Tories expected.
Add on the migration crisis from the Middle East, inaccurate polling during the Scottish Independence vote, and the people versus establishment pattern of Brexit—it’s not just the U.S. electorate completely disillusioned and fed up with established political leadership—and Cameron and the Remain campaign are justifiably nervous about the June vote.
Seeking assistance, they called President Obama, the man who promised peace and prosperity eight years ago by the force of his intellect and charm, yet who ended up seeing the world melt into chaos due to botched diplomacy and “leading from behind”—that’s the guy the Remain folks thought could help their cause.
Chances were, Obama was going to say or do something inept. His track record of impressing the Brits has been embarrassing ever since he took office. But his Brexit comments on Friday, both in The Telegraph and from the podium with Cameron, betray a lack of political intuition and basic knowledge of his audience.
Threats Won’t Work, Mr. President
What did Obama say? He told the U.K. public that if they voted to leave the EU then they would “go to the back of the queue” for a trade deal. It is quite a provocative statement for a diplomat to make. It is even worse than Trump’s bluster that he’d have the Mexican government pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Trump was at least making vague comments to a government about something that physically affected the United States. Obama is threatening the citizenry of another country with trade, and not over any typical election, but one about their sovereignty as a nation.
The Remain folks think this went well. They have been stoking fear of assorted collapse and disasters should the U.K. vote to leave. Leave calls it “Project Fear.” One of the coveted fears concerns trade. They are gloating with I told you so’s.
The Leave folk have pointed out that the U.K. government is perfectly capable of negotiating individual trade deals with other countries. In fact, individually they could make trade deals that actually work for Britain. Obama is threatening them, asserting that the United States won’t make a deal with them alone.
It’s completely obnoxious. It is an empty threat, to boot. Does anyone seriously think we wouldn’t do a trade deal with the United Kingdom? Even for those few holdouts who still believe Obama, he’s only got nine months left in office. This threat is all insult, no sting.
Obama’s Flaccidity Has Stoked Resentment
Obama’s op-ed in The Telegraph was no better. There he opted for a guilt trip by invoking our war dead:
I realise that there’s been considerable speculation – and some controversy – about the timing of my visit. And I confess: I do want to wish Her Majesty a happy birthday in person.
But also I understand that there’s a spirited campaign under way here. My country is going through much the same. And ultimately, the question of whether or not the UK remains a part of the EU is a matter for British voters to decide for yourselves.
That said, when President Roosevelt toasted to our special relationship that night, he also remarked that we are friends who have no fear of each other. So I will say, with the candour of a friend, that the outcome of your decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States. The tens of thousands of Americans who rest in Europe’s cemeteries are a silent testament to just how intertwined our prosperity and security truly are. And the path you choose now will echo in the prospects of today’s generation of Americans as well.
He seems unaware that he, “the part-time leader of the free world” and fair-weather friend, has strained the special relationship with everything from returning the Churchill bust to his delayed action in Libya. In fact, if he could read others at all, he would know the essential reason Brits were so keen on him in 2008 was that he was going to butt out of British politics.
If his team did any research at all, they might stumble upon resentment—well-founded or not—that we took them by the lead into Iraq (they commonly referred to Prime Minister Blair as President Bush’s poodle), destabilized the region, then refused to help out when Libya melted down and threatened their energy imports.
In fact, if we wanted to have this discussion about our dead in Europe’s cemeteries, and choosing paths that echo into the future, then we should have had it back in 2010 when the United Kingdom slashed its defense budget, which is why they so needed our help in Libya in 2011. From the Heritage Foundation in 2011:
Britain’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), released in October 2010, has already led to significant cuts in the size and capabilities of Britain’s armed forces, with more reductions in the years to come….[Now, six months later] the Libyan conflict is exactly the kind of conflict that the SDSR argued was unlikely to occur. It is a high-tech war fought from the air against a regime with a conventional military. It requires exactly the forces that Britain decided were unnecessary, and it is cruelly exposing the failure of successive governments to adequately invest in the capabilities and endurance of the British forces. The SDSR’s decisions were wrong when they were announced; the Libya campaign has merely demonstrated that criticisms of them at the time were correct.
Then, allusions to our war dead might have made sense. For Brexit, they are almost maudlin.
Classic Obama: Pointless Posturing
By most evidence I could find Friday night, Obama’s comments are not going over well. I’m writing this around midnight Central Time, or about 6 a.m. in London. From my Twitter feed pattern, I suspect that few paid attention to Obama’s statement Friday evening and are now waking to a handful of stories about Obama sending the United Kingdom to the back of the queue.
My feed is surging with “outrage” and assorted insults. The calmest tweeters simply ask what kind of special relationship can we have if the United States refuses to negotiate a trade deal with the United Kingdom directly? No matter. They all know Obama and his staff will be out of power in nine months, and they will know with whom to start negotiating in six.
He arrogantly meddled in their sovereign business without the ability to follow through on his threats. It is classic Obama. I bet the bookies up the chances of Leave by lunchtime.