Has BP oil spill damaged the US-UK 'special relationship'?

Some British officials complain about harsh criticism of the company formerly known as ‘British Petroleum.' Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron will try to smooth US-UK ties when they discuss the BP oil spill – among other topics – this weekend.

By , Staff writer

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    Greenpeace demonstrators protest outside the staff entrance to BP headquarters in central London on May 20. The BP oil spill is becoming an issue in US-UK relations.
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In simpler times, President Obama and new British Prime Minister David Cameron might have been placing a friendly bet over Saturday’s US-England World Cup match when the two leaders talk by phone this weekend.

But before they can talk sports, the two top representatives of the US-UK “special relationship” have to address more pressing issues like Afghanistan. And then there’s the mounting fallout from BP’s handling of the BP oil spill and environmental disaster.

With the British press and even some officials increasingly seeing attacks on Britain itself in the president’s and his administration’s criticisms of BP, Mr. Cameron has sought to calm the waters. During a visit to Afghanistan Thursday, he said the oil spill would no doubt be part of what his office says is a “routine” phone conversation, but he ducked pointed questions about an anti-British side to criticisms of BP.

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“I completely understand the US government’s frustration because it’s an environmental catastrophe,” he said. “The most important thing is to mitigate the effects of the leak and get to the root of the problem.”

That was a passionless response worthy of the erstwhile “cool Obama.” But as Obama’s rhetoric has ratcheted up over the course of the continuing oil leak – and as BP’s stock price has continued to slide – more British voices have sounded alarms over what they consider to be growing anti-British sentiment in the White House.

In this environment, both leaders need to be politically agile, some transatlantic experts say.

Holding emotions in check

“This is a relationship with a plate of issues that’s already running over, with everything from Afghanistan and plans for British defense cuts to financial regulation,” says Heather Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “You don’t want this disaster and its implications to become a distraction, but that can happen if some of the emotions aren’t held in check.”

“As the pictures and reports of the impact [of the leak] pour in, it’s going to be all the more difficult for Obama to keep things on an even keel,” she adds.

The most alarmist remarks emanated from London’s city hall, where Mayor Boris Johnson cited as a “matter of national concern” the “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.”

“When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up,” said Mr. Johnson, a member of Cameron’s Conservative party

Financial experts estimate that BP dividends account for as much as 16 percent of all stock payouts that UK pensioners receive.

Another British Conservative, Norman Tebbit, summed up the US criticisms of BP as scapegoating for America’s inability to solve its own problem: “The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill – so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational company?”

The British press, and not just the tabloids, took off and ran with those quotes, adding their own observation that the Obama administration has “made a point,” as the Times of London said, of using BP’s former name – “British Petroleum”.

A search of the White House website, Obama’s own comments over the last six weeks, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s copious discussions of the oil spill reveal no wholesale reference to “British Petroleum,” although the outdated name is sprinkled in among repeated references to BP.

What appears to have set off the pique-on-the-Thames was Obama’s observation earlier this week that he would have fired BP CEO Tony Hayward by now.

Obama says he'd fire BP's CEO

On NBC’s Today show Tuesday, Obama said in reference to some of Mr. Hayward’s public comments – complaints about how the spill has consumed his personal time, and his observation that “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest” – that “he wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.”

Then on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress said they wanted to know if the US government could issue an injunction to stop BP from paying out dividends on its shares. Those inquiries reflected growing frustration among Gulf fishermen and other business people that BP’s payouts to them have been slow and paltry.

Still, the comments from Obama and Congress prompted the head of the Confederation of British Industry to proclaim in a statement, “It’s a matter of concern when politicians get heavily involved in this way.”

CSIS’s Ms. Conley says it’s unrealistic to think politicians, and especially a country’s leader, wouldn’t become involved in a disaster of such magnitude. But she says it’s important to remember that “BP is a company, it’s not a country.” She notes, for example, that 40 percent of BP’s shares are held by Americans.

Says Conley, “What you are seeing on full display is interdependence 21st-century style.”

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