Ahead of a promised UK defence piece tomorrow and in response to an expressed expectation and hope from many that I would at least have something to say on the subject I will allow myself the opportunity to comment on the three day visit to Britain last week of President Obama.
In respect of the EU referendum debate with such a large and diverse list of commentary recipients I am as they say dammed if I do say anything on the subject just as much as being dammed if I don’t. Having previously said where I sit by a mere 5% margin (remain) I have done my best to sit this debate out. However on some aspects and when certain things occur there is good reason to respond.
There are many that would be very happy to say that anything that President Obama says is now irrelevant. Only this morning my chum Anthony Peters of Sol Capital Markets talks of a Lame Duck Obama now being in Hannover to meet up with the German Chancellor who he always chooses to refers to as ‘Mutti’ Merkel.
Barrack Obama may be an outgoing president with just nine months remaining in the White House and an ever limiting time to achieve much else but he is still the US president. True, many on the Hill and elsewhere do regard him as being a ‘lame-duck’ president and one that is at odds with Congress and they also take the view that anything he might try to do between now and the handover of power to an elected successor in January 2017 will be scuppered on the Hill.
Similarly, there are those who believe that President Obama has achieved all too little in office, that he has stood back from engaging US armed forces in the conflicts of others and made America weaker for it, that the budget deficit has changed little through his period in office and that the tide of US debt growth remains a ticking time bomb. And there are those that prefer to believe under Obama’s leadership America has gone soft on welfare and that his ‘Obamacare’ healthcare policies will cost America dear.
Maybe so but for all that this has been an intelligent administration and it is one that under President Obama has placed conflict avoidance and diplomacy above the heavy hand of American power and prowess. US Secretary of State John Kerry has worked hard to establish diplomacy rather than conflict as a means to bringing Iran back from the brink and although there are many that distrust American policy on Iran giving it a chance to work is surely better than pushing Iran into a corner from which conflict may have been the only way out. And then there was Cuba – who on earth at the beginning of the Obama first term would imagine that by now US civil aircraft would be flying daily services into Havana? And finally there was the promise to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison that was made eight years ago and that while has yet to be completed is well on the way. Indeed, with less than 90 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay today compared to 783 when the prison first in 2002 during the Bush administration, I think that the Obama administration can claim some kind of success.
And then there is the ‘strength’ of US economy that although Obama has not been directly responsible for has the strong hand of the White House writ large over it.
We in Britain had been well warned ahead of the visit what to expect in relation to the Obama visit and of what the President would say about a perceived US desire for Britain to stay in the European Union. Inspired by others it may have been and whilst I would prefer that foreign leaders stay out the domestic affairs of others as we would do if visiting their country I suspect that I am in this case rather glad that President Obama was brave enough to break a golden rule of diplomacy. What Obama said over the three days that he was here was an expression that a Britain alone and out of the EU could not expect any special trade favours. Easy to say of course and perceived as a threat by the ‘leave’ campaign rubbished in every respect. But Obama is right to say that while the special relationship between the US and UK carries more weight in US minds that any other that it has in a political world that from a globalisation perspective prefers to speak to a mass of nations rather than one Britain would, in respect of trade, be no better placed in US minds than Japan. We might wish to believe that America would prefer to trade with us rather than the rest of the EU but the truth is that America today goes where markets take it and in terms of trade it is not going to turn its back on the importance of the EU in terms of US trade.
Such views appear to be universal in respect of Republican and Democratic Party doctrine although if Trump becomes the presidential choice for the Republicans and then goes on to win in November I suspect that ‘Europe’ as a whole and particularly NATO members in Europe will be in for a very tough time.
I will not here and now repeat the various comments in respect of why President Obama chose to give so much support to the Cameron ‘Remain’ campaign. But I will say that his speeches and comments on the subject were delivered with passions and full understanding of the issue and that they were argued very well. How nice it was to hear a politician and one that in this case is leader of the largest nation in the free world speaking from a position of strength, without looking ill at ease or sounding out of his depth. How interesting and what a pleasure it was also to witness that for the most part those that interviewed President Obama over the three day visit showed little other than deference and respect to him as they placed their questions. Would that such occurred with our own politicians!
What a difference Barrack Obama is from his predecessor, George W Bush. In reality, I want to believe that the ‘back of the queue’ remarks were not only unfortunate but that they had the hand of Number 10 writ large all over them. Maybe, bit in any event media, particularly the anti-establishment BBC, was quickly all over them attempting to embarrass and damage Mr. Cameron as much as they could. Well, I suppose in this case, if the cap fits wear it.
But what worried me most about this visit? Firstly that while it is always pleasing to see an American President and his wife meeting with the Queen and members of the Royal family I fear that with the EU membership debate taking centre stage too little time was devoted to foreign affairs issues, defence and other important topics.
Secondly I would say that while I wish to stay out of the actual Brexit debate itself I was absolutely appalled to hear some of the things that London Mayor Boris Johnson said about President Obama. How absolutely stupid and insulting for Johnson to suggest that Obama’s Kenya family past made him anti-British. How rude to suggest that what Obama said in respect of the EU referendum debate was “incoherent, inconsistent and downright hypocritical” in respect of his intervention in the debate and how absolutely stupid and in possession of no facts to back his accusation up that Johnson should accuse Obama of having removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office when he became President.
While Johnson made a quite sensible point that the US would never dream of sharing its sovereignty over anything and guards its democracy and freedom very well he ignores that America is itself and amalgam of states that took a major civil war to put in place. There is little doubt that the ‘halo’ that is the driving force of Boris Johnson has been seriously damaged over the past few days. Heaven forbid that one day a Republican President by the name of Donald Trump sits in the White House and another clown in the form of Boris Johnson is lording it in Number 10. Outspoken remarks these may be and ones’ that I am loathed to make but even if I can believe many aspects of the Brexit argument are correct, particularly in respect of immigration, I cannot forgive the stupidity of Boris Johnson remarks over the weekend.
As to the question I posed at the start? Well, while Prime Minster David Cameron and most of the ‘Remain’ campaign members will be pleased in terms of Britain’s standing in the world I fear very little has been achieved by the Obama visit. There is at least no question that the bonds between our country and those of the US are any weaker for anything that President Obama has said. But in respect of world affairs and of what the West should be doing in Iraq, Syria and other trouble spots in the world I can see nothing beneficial having come out of this visit. Was there even a mention of the threat that Russia poses I wonder or China come to that? I doubt it very much.
As to the ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ campaigns there is no doubt that Obama’s visit made an impact and coming on top of words from Chancellor of the Exchequer last week and those anticipated from the Home Secretary today it seems that the ‘Remain’ campaign have regained the upper hand. That said, there are still two months to go in this campaign and the end vote when it comes will no doubt be as much about voting for people preference – in other words Cameron verses Johnson – than it will be about the real EU referendum matter in hand. Banana skins aplenty await both sides in the EU referendum debate and for both there can be no room for complacency.
CHW (London 25th April 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS