The toasts at last night’s state dinner were flowing as readily as the wine specially paired with each of the four courses to honor visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I’ve learned something about David,” President Obama said. “In good times and in bad, he’s just the kind of partner that you want at your side. I trust him. He says what he does, and he does what he says. And I’ve seen his character.”
It probably would have been more succinct to say that Obama has finally seen the strength of the U.S.-UK special relationship.
Or, more accurately, the president is waking up to the ways in which he needs that relationship now.
The festivities over the past couple of days, from jetting the Tory to an NCAA March Madness game in Ohio to hosting a fete with bison Wellington and George Clooney, were like the political equivalent of trying to sweep up the shards of your mess with a gold-plated broom using hundreds of finely shredded dollars as the bristles. (Or, cooking up fresh policy on a $2,000-something custom grill.)
Looking at the state dinner program, in addition to the descriptions of the warm lemon steamed pudding and John Legend entertainment, was a listing of the three official visits by the leaders of our special partner to receive state dinners. Tony Blair was honored so by Bill Clinton in 1998; Margaret Thatcher by President Reagan in 1988.
“In 1952, when Winston Churchill had become prime minister for the second time and all the troubles of the cold war — including the hardships of rearming the West — were keenly felt, he was having a meeting with a group of American journalists in New York. In Martin Gilbert’s extraordinary biography we find recorded these words from Churchill by his doctor, Lord Moran: ‘What other nation in history, when it became supremely powerful, has had no thought of territorial aggrandizement, no ambition but to use its resources for the good of the world? I marvel at America’s altruism, her sublime disinterestedness,'” Reagan began that toast to his partner in bringing down communism.
“‘All at once I realized,’ Lord Moran went on, ‘Winston was in tears. His eyes were red, his voice faltered, he was deeply moved.’ Well, Prime Minister Thatcher, I think you can imagine how humbling it is for an American to read such an account,” Reagan said at the 1988 dinner. “Such a tribute from Sir Winston, a man so unselfish himself in pursuit of the cause of freedom, a man who led Britain when Britain stood bravely and unselfishly alone, is only a reminder of how deeply runs the mutual admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Obama, too, threw out a Churchill quote last night: “I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”
And yet the bust of Churchill proudly displayed in the Oval Office, loaned to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, was evicted less than a month into Obama’s presidency.
This initial rebuff rankled many on both sides of the pond and raised concerns about how the special relationship would fare under the new commander in chief.
Then came a series of glacial missteps that made it look like Obama just didn’t care much about the strength of those ties.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the first European leader to visit Obama at the White House in March 2009. Not only did he not get a state dinner, Brown didn’t even get a formal joint press conference. Obama associates claimed he was too tired from the strain of the economic crisis to properly welcome America’s most important ally. He countered the Browns’ carefully selected gifts with cheap DVDs and trinkets from the White House gift shop and promised to chat more with the prime minister ahead of the upcoming G-20. Back to Britain with you.
When British officials and media expressed aghast at the snub, a State Department official told the Sunday Telegraph, “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”
And that set the unfortunate tone for Washington’s relations with London in the new administration.
In May 2010, Labour Party leader Gordon Brown was out and David Cameron was in at 10 Downing Street. The Obamas made a state visit to England at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II in May 2011.
Now, apparently, Obama and Cameron are besties.
There’s little doubt that Obama likes hanging out with Cameron more than he liked Brown. The president doesn’t easily hide his disdain for world leaders, as evidenced by his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the president has apparently realized that he needs this prime minister more than he needs the special relationship. Thus, roll out the fanfare.
Obama needs Cameron to stand behind his Afghanistan withdrawal timetable, particularly heading into May’s NATO summit in Chicago. After all, the president wants to be able to tell voters that he ended two — not one — of Bush’s wars.
Cameron’s also got Obama’s back in ruling out intervention in the Syrian massacres, as the two stressed together at yesterday’s joint press conference — a day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the revolt.
And as crisis with Iran comes to a head, Obama needs Cameron to double-team Netanyahu on plans to strike at nuclear facilities before the Islamic Republic is able to achieve nuclear weapons development capability. The prime minister has had his own rough patches with his Israeli counterpart, like when he threatened to recognize a state of Palestine at the United Nations unless Jerusalem re-opened peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (Hamas, Fatah, no matter in Cameron’s book). And both Obama and Cameron are dead-set against Israeli strikes.
The Washington Post referred to Cameron as Obama’s “guard dog,” whereas Blair had been Bush’s “poodle.”
But Obama really needed some BFF-style yapping from a Conservative Party leader as he heads into his re-election campaign.
Not that Cameron is any Thatcherite, but he does bear the C-label and many Americans aren’t likely familiar with his green revolution. He didn’t meet with any of the Republican presidential candidates on his trip, but did offer some campaign-commercial friendly footage for Obama with his toast to the president last night.
“There are three things about Barack that really stand out for me: strength, moral authority, and wisdom,” Cameron gushed. “Strength, because Barack has been strong when required to defend his national interests. Under President Obama’s leadership, America got bin Laden.”
There’s one of Obama’s key campaign themes. But he continued to give a shout to feckless foreign policy and the domestic fairness doctrine, too.
“Moral authority, because Barack understands that the means matter every bit as much as the ends. Yes, America must do the right thing, but to provide moral leadership, America must do it in the right way, too,” Cameron said. “The first president I studied at school was Theodore Roosevelt. He talked of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. That is Barack’s approach. And in following it, he has pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world.”
Herein noting that Obama will likely face charges that Russia hasn’t reset at all.
“Wisdom, because Barack has not rushed into picking fights, but is steward of America’s resources of hard and soft power,” Cameron’s lovefest continued. “He’s taken time to make considered decisions, drawing down troops from Iraq and surging in Afghanistan. He’s found a new voice for America with the Arab people. And at home, he’s recognized that in America, as in Britain, the future depends on making the best of every citizen. Both our nations have historically been held back by inequality. But now there’s a determined effort in both our countries — most notably through education reform — to ensure that opportunity is truly available for all.”
Higher education for all? Why, yes, that’s an “investment” recently put forth by this administration.
All that effusive praise was matched by the earlier Obama quote: that Cameron’s a good partner with character.
This campaign pitch overshadowed the one part of Cameron’s remarks that could have been interpreted as an itty bitty snipe at the Oval Office’s runaway bronze bust.
“Now, Her Majesty’s first Prime Minister was, of course, Winston Churchill, a regular guest here at the White House,” Cameron said. “I’m not going to quote from Churchill, I’m going to quote about Churchill — because it seems his visits were not always the easiest experience for his American hosts.”