Britain’s love affair with President Obama has come to a grinding halt. His handling of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has turned the relationship sour, almost overnight. Nobody in Britain doubts that the Gulf shores of the United States face an environmental catastrophe or that BP is culpable and should pay for the mess it has created.
The company’s hapless chief executive, Tony Hayward, is regarded here as an embarrassment, clearly not up to the task at hand. His invisible Swedish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, is generally depicted as useless. (Nobody in Britain has ever heard of him, everybody is puzzled about why this dull Eurocrat got the job in the first place, and the British media have excoriated him for being silent throughout the crisis.) Nobody in Britain will shed any tears if neither CEO nor chairman survives the spill; indeed, there’s a clamor for them both to go.
British politicians are complaining that the president is taking cheap shots at the Brits to mask his own inadequate response to the spill.
But widespread anger with BP, horror at events unfolding in the Gulf—pictures of oil gushing uncontrolled from the seabed appear nightly on our TV sets, just as they do in America—and heartfelt sympathy for those affected are rapidly being replaced by near-universal disgust at what is perceived as the president’s anti-British rhetoric, which is deeply resented on this side of the Atlantic.
This weekend, Obama and our new prime minister, David Cameron, spoke on the phone. Obama claimed that “national identity” had nothing to do with his approach to the crisis. Our prime minister was too polite to say that nobody believed him.
The first sign that the Brits were going to take the rap for the oil spill came with Obama’s constant references to “BRITISH Petroleum,” a name that was dropped more than a decade ago, after the merger with America’s Amoco turned the British oil company into a transnational conglomerate. The British media quickly concluded that the president wanted to make out that the spill was all the fault of evil foreigners, if only to hide his own administration’s inadequate response to the crisis. Even the normally mild-mannered and very pro-Obama Financial Times urged the president to “stop treating BP as a hostile and alien entity.” BP, after all, employs more people in America than it does in Britain and is 40 percent-owned by U.S. institutions; it even provides the U.S. military with most of its fuel.
The Spectator magazine, which prides itself on its pro-American credentials, complained that the Obama administration was speaking as if a “British pirate expedition had sailed over and drilled a wildcat well” before going on to point out that the disaster was caused by an American-owned, Korean-built rig leased by BP’s U.S. subsidiary.
The British expected BP and the U.S. government to work together to stem the leak. So they were appalled when Obama talked about needing to know “whose ass to kick” and his administration vowed to keep its “boot on the neck” of BP. He disparaged Hayward on network TV, refusing even to talk to him. Suddenly a president widely regarded by the British as sophisticated and civilized was being seen as a vulgar populist with a deeply embedded anti-British strain.
President Obama telling Matt Lauer he wants to "know whose ass to kick"
Now the gloves have come off on this side of the Atlantic. The British tabloids have been urging Cameron to “stand up for Britain” and tell Obama to stop slagging us off. Influential commentators have weighed in, with one accusing Obama of “crass populism which shows very poor statesmanship.” The airwaves, public prints, blogs, and websites are crammed with attacks on the president that would have been inconceivable only a month ago.
Even normally sober voices are getting in on the act. The former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, told the BBC it was time for Cameron to take on the White House: “The survival and ultimate prosperity of BP is a vital British interest, and I think the time has come to point it out, at a senior level, to the U.S. administration.” Various politicians, from former foreign ministers to members of parliament to peers of the realm, have piled in, all complaining that the president is taking cheap shots at the Brits to mask his own inadequate response to the spill.
It has long been feared that Obama had an anti-British streak running through him. The removal of the bust of Winston Churchill, which his predecessor had proudly displayed in the Oval Office, caused consternation. The inappropriate gift to the queen, an iPod loaded with 40 show tunes, provoked puzzlement. The references in his autobiography to his grandfather being mistreated by the British in colonial Kenya, despite any evidence being proffered to substantiate the claim, was taken to be the source of his hostility to America’s most loyal ally.
His beating up of BP has clinched his anti-British credentials on this side of the Atlantic. The anger here is palpable. Almost 10,000 British troops are fighting an unpopular war in Afghanistan alongside America, taking hundreds of fatalities and many more serious injuries. That alone, say the British, should be enough to still the president’s tongue.
Many have pointed out that when the Piper Alpha production platform exploded in the British North Sea in 1988, killing 167 in the worst-ever oil industry disaster, there was no outbreak of anti-American rhetoric, even though it was owned and operated by a U.S. company, Occidental. Others have stressed that the owner of the destroyed Gulf rig, Transocean, is an American company that relocated for tax reasons first to the Cayman Islands, then Switzerland; and that the company involved in the “cementing” process that failed to protect the rig against explosion was Halliburton, which most certainly is not a British company. Yet neither has had the same lashing from the president as BP.
BP and the Anglo-American special relationship have both taken a serious knock from events in the Gulf. But President Obama’s reputation in Britain has suffered the biggest blow of all.
Andrew Neil is a publisher and broadcaster working out of London, New York, Dubai, and the south of France. He is chairman and editor in chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publishers of The Spectator, Spectator Business, and Apollo.