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No more DVDs, Mr President: Why Barack Obama should tread carefully with David Cameron


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After the débacle that was Gordon Brown’s visit to the White House in March last year, I hope that Barack Obama treats David Cameron with the respect that the leader of America’s closest ally deserves when he arrives in Washington on Tuesday. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been highly critical of Brown in the past, but condemned his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Obama administration, which was seen as humiliating for the British people and, perhaps more so, for the office of the Prime Minister.

When Gordon Brown met with his US counterpart for his only White House meeting with Barack Obama, he was denied an official dinner or Rose Garden press conference, and was received as though he were the head of a Third World country. He brought with him several thoughtful gifts including “a pen holder fashioned from the timber of HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute that also served for a time on anti-slavery missions off Africa”. And what did Brown receive in return? A collection of 25 DVDs, including Toy Story and the Wizard of Oz, which couldn’t even be played in Britain. When asked by The Sunday Telegraph why Brown had been treated so badly, a senior State Department official in charge of protocol sneered:

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.

I suspect that the White House will be a great deal more careful in its dealings with the new Prime Minister than it was with Gordon Brown. Cameron arrives in Washington this week a far more powerful figure than his predecessor in Downing Street, who was widely viewed even across the Atlantic as a political lame duck living on borrowed time. Brown’s extremely low approval ratings at home, plus his lack of name recognition in the States meant that a snub by the White House was viewed by the likes of Rahm Emmanuel as low risk.

Personality-wise Obama and Brown had little in common, and there was a distinct lack of chemistry between the two. As much as Brown tried to woo Obama, the US president oozed thinly veiled contempt towards the Labour leader, which culminated in his refusal to meet with him for one-to-one talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last September.

Cameron arrives in the United States with high approval ratings and a distinct spring in his step. He has met Obama at least twice, in London and at the G20, and their meetings have been warm. The British Prime Minister has so far put barely a foot wrong internationally, and impressed world leaders at the Toronto summit. Cameron looks like an assertive and confident international statesman, who is likely to appeal to the American public.

Common sense and political necessity dictates that President Obama should seek to build up a close relationship with David Cameron, not least with significant shared interests in the war in Afghanistan, the wider War on Terror, and the looming Iranian nuclear threat. Washington needs the Special Relationship to work just as much as London does. But common sense does not always rule in the Obama White House.

It is important never to underestimate the extent to which this US administration is capable of riling America’s allies, from removing a bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the Oval Office within days of taking office to the president playing golf on the day of the funeral of the Polish president, tragically killed in a plane crash. Or siding with Argentina’s calls for UN-brokered negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falklands, and throwing key allies Poland and the Czech Republic under the Russian bus. Or siding with Marxists in Honduras, and humiliating the Prime Minister of Israel. The list is endless.

In fact, the Obama team has done more to offend America’s friends than all post-war American administrations put together. Throw into the mix some strong anti-British and anti-foreign sentiment among some Democrats on Capitol Hill in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill, and you have the potential for another diplomatic incident.

The ramifications of a public snub for Cameron, or a perceived insult from the White House, are far greater than they were with Brown, and would lead to a furious backlash in the British press and in Westminster. President Obama and his advisers must tread carefully and recognise that it is not in their interests to alienate the new Prime Minister, not least at a time when US and British troops are fighting shoulder to shoulder on the battlefields of Afghanistan. America has no greater friend than Great Britain and the British people, and his welcome for Mr Cameron should reflect that.
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