Obama's criticism of British PM: Blow to 'special relationship'?

President Obama has publicly criticized the British prime minister for lack of follow-up in Libya and the veto of airstrikes in Syria. But most British observers do not deny the veracity of the comments, nor do they fret over its impact on US-UK relations.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Barack Obama listens as British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015.

President Obama has publicly criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron, heaping blame for Libya’s chaos at the prime minister’s feet, while also lamenting his failure to secure parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria.

The comments, made during a sweeping interview in The Atlantic that considers President Obama’s navigation through the world of foreign policy, are seen as unusual for a sitting president.

Nonetheless, the overarching reaction in the British press has been one of acceptance, in terms of the veracity of the criticisms, rather than anger or hand-wringing over the state of the transatlantic relationship.

“Obama wasn’t saying the relationship is broken. He was saying, as you do to your friends, I was disappointed, I hoped for more,” says Xenia Wickett, head of US and the Americas Program at Chatham House, UK, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“But this isn’t going to affect the transatlantic relationship; if anything, it’s a sign of the strength of that relationship, because he can say these things without worrying about the consequences.”

Yet it is unusual for a leader to “be so blunt in their public comments,” as Ms. Wickett admits.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” said Obama, talking of the intervention in Libya, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”

He goes on to describe Prime Minister Cameron as having become “distracted by a range of other things.”

But whereas some headlines in the United States, such as “UK press up in arms over Obama comments," would paint a picture of self-righteous anger, British commentators have, on the whole, reacted with a cool-headed assessment of the facts.

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson writes that “some disparaging remarks about a British prime minister from an American president [don't] really rate as earth-shattering,” while Simon Tisdall of the Guardian assesses the accuracy of Obama’s comments “is not really in doubt."

“If you decide to intervene militarily in a country and overthrow its government, then you have a moral obligation to help set it back on its feet again, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan,” writes Con Coughlin, the Telegraph's defense editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.

“But wary of becoming involved in a long drawn-out conflict, Mr. Cameron was not prepared to make the political commitment to Libya to help stabilize the country, post-Qaddafi.”

In spite of widespread acknowledgment that Libya required more attention, there is little agreement on what exactly could have been done.

“There is no question that more was needed in Libya,” Wickett tells the Monitor. “But there simply weren’t people on the ground willing to come together in Libya, and that was the stumbling block – lack of a moderate coalition willing or able to take leadership, even if outside parties had been willing to do more.”

Obama also spoke about the situation in Syria, saying the British parliament’s refusal to approve airstrikes was a “major factor” in his decision not to launch an attack in the wake of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crossing of the “red line” by using chemical weapons.

While there were other factors at play, too, and some argue the British vote was simply used by Obama to indulge his own reluctance, Wickett describes it as “a very clear, tangible example of the importance of British influence."

“I’m surprised how few people realize the import of the British decision on airstrikes,” says Wickett. “Many Britons just don’t believe it; there’s a real lack of confidence here in the influence that Britain can have on the United States."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.