So About That Special Relationship ...

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Not all roses  (Anadolu Agency / AP)

President Obama’s comments about Britain and Prime Minister David Cameron in Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story are dominating headlines in the United Kingdom. The Times carried the story on its front page, with the headline, “Obama lays blame for Libya mess on Cameron,” and The Independent headlined it: “Obama savages Cameron on Libya.”

Two excerpts from Goldberg’s piece are garnering particular attention. In the first, Obama warned that Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least two percent of its GDP on defense. Cameron subsequently met that threshold. In the second, Obama, while apportioning blame for the “shit show” in Libya, says Cameron soon stopped paying attention to the situation in the country because he was “distracted by a range of other things.”

The multinational military campaign that the U.S. helped assemble in 2011 managed to topple Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi but left behind political chaos that ISIS and other militant groups have exploited. “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama told Goldberg, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”

Malcolm Rifkind, the former U.K. foreign secretary, defended the British role in Libya, saying the criticism from Obama was a “bit rich.” He continued: “I think, if there’s criticism, looking at your own actions is sometimes appropriate.”

Similar criticism came from British lawmakers in both the ruling Conservative Party, as well as Labour, the main opposition party. One Conservative MP tweeted:

Downing Street itself has remained mum (and it’s unclear whether Cameron will launch into a Hugh Grant-style tirade at his next meeting with Obama).

The White House, in a statement, course-corrected almost immediately, insisting Cameron “has been as close a partner as the president has had,” and emphasizing “our special and essential relationship.” (Goldberg’s cover story comes just a week after the 70th anniversary of the speech in which Winston Churchill used the phrase “special relationship” to describe the ties between the two countries.)

Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, said the White House statement, which was unsolicited, “suggested Downing Street had reacted angrily.” Iain Watson, the BBC’s political correspondent, added that the White House’s attempts to smooth things over “came too late to avoid the collateral damage delivered to [Cameron’s] …  reputation from the president’s candid comments.”

In another article, the BBC’s Nick Bryant pointed out that Britain has “obsessed about its” special relationship with the U.S. “So,” he wrote, “the special relationship antennae, those delicately calibrated instruments tuned to pick up even the slightest of ructions, would have been swaying violently from side to side following Barack Obama’s criticism of David Cameron.”

Con Coughlin, the defense editor and chief foreign-affairs columnist for The Telegraph, wrote that Obama might have broken diplomatic protocol with his seemingly undiplomatic remarks, but “there can be doubt as to the veracity of his accusation.”

Coughlin wrote that Cameron and other European leaders were always more enthusiastic about intervening in Libya than their American counterpart or even their own military officials. And, he wrote:

Mr Cameron is perfectly entitled to pursue whichever policies he thinks appropriate for the British people. But 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. 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 stabilise the country post-Gaddafi. The result, as Mr Obama says in his interview for Atlantic Monthly, is that Libya has now descended into chaos. And for this disastrous outcome, Mr Cameron has no one but himself to blame.

Over at The Guardian, Simon Tisdall, the assistant editor and foreign-affairs columnist, acknowledged that the accuracy of Obama’s criticism is “not really in doubt.” But he added:

Yet when Obama states that he was reluctant to get involved because US interests were not directly at stake, he inadvertently highlights what historians may come to see as a major flaw in his presidency regarding his handling of international affairs. In limiting US commitment and stressing the need for European and and Gulf allies and the UN to take most of the strain, Obama and his advisers appear to have abandoned the leadership role that previous US presidents have guarded so jealously since 1945.

Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign-affairs commentator for the Financial Times, wrote that “broadly speaking,” Obama’s critique rings true, but “it is not clear that there were good alternatives in Libya that Mr Cameron somehow failed to embrace.”

“The big picture,” he wrote, “is that the West as a whole has lost power in the Middle East—and that violent anarchy is on the march.”