OBAMA’S UK CHALLENGE
ROGER COHEN | NYT NEWS SERVICE
PRIME Minister David Cameron came into office seeking relations with the United States that were “solid” but not “slavish.” That was a not-so-subtle allusion to the perceived poodle complex of his predecessor, Tony Blair.
As President Obama arrive in London for a state visit, I’d say the Cameron team can declare mission accomplished — although preferably not from the flight deck of a warship.
They might also mutter: Careful what you wish for.
I’ll get to that in a moment.
Cameron has been most conspicuously un-slavish on the Middle East.
Along with France and Germany, Britain voted in favour of a UN resolution in February condemning Israeli settlements, while the United States vetoed it despite Obama’s repeated criticism of said settlements.
Score one for British consistency over American contortionism.
He’s also been un-slavish on the economy.
Britain has tackled its fiscal crisis head-on with draconian cuts while the Obama administration has left those hard choices for another day.
The British recovery is austerity-clouded, but Cameron cannot be accused, like Obama, of having no plan for getting public finances under control.
The US deficit is a time bomb aimed at future generations.
The required political trade-off in the United States is obvious: Republicans must accept rising taxes while Democrats must accept falling entitlements.
Obama could do worse than listen to Europeans, who have grappled with such issues — particularly bringing runaway entitlements under control — for a long time.
There’s also been British un-slavishness on war and peace.
The diplomatic push for the Libyan intervention came principally from Britain and France while Obama, with reason, fretted over a third US military front in a Muslim country.
Having seen just how close the forces of Moamer Qadhafi got to Benghazi (the carcasses of abandoned tanks stand just 20 miles south of the city), and having understood the full cruelty of Qadhafi’s maniacal tyranny, I am certain Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy averted a massacre.
But the Libyan operation has been plagued by hesitations.
My condition for going in was ruthlessness: It’s not been met.
First there was the curious American “handover” to NATO, as if NATO were not the United States and the rest.
Then there was the American pause in combat sorties.
The result has been a mission that often gives the impression of being halfhearted and division-prone.
The Libyan operation has been a strategic shock to Europe — and here we get to the careful-what-youwish- for side of un-slavishness.
You can’t pretend to strut your stuff as Europe and at the same time slash defence budgets to the point that, a couple of months into a military operation, you find yourself running out of jet fuel and munitions.
Libya has underscored the unique US capacity to project power and the heavy European dependence on that projection.
I don’t see a European public ready to bolster defence spending, but the need is there.
Un-slavishness means little if it does not mean assumption of responsibility.
NATO, having gone in, has to prevail in Libya.
Prevailing means Qadhafi’s departure in short order.
Stalemate is a Qadhafi victory.
His bet is that he can hang on longer than NATO can remain united.
The longer stalemate goes on, the more Libya fractures and the higher the risk that Libya will distort the Western approach to an Arab transformation whose bumper sticker should be, “It’s Egypt, stupid.” Only if the Arab world’s largest state, cultural heart and political reference can achieve a stable transition to representative government will the Arab Spring move forward.
Libya cannot be the tail that wags the Egyptian dog.
So the immediate test of the redefined US-British relationship is the ability of Obama and Cameron to deliver change in Tripoli fast and stop the conflict festering.
I think it’s doable.
But the condition is no more wavering.
The European strategic interest in the Arab Spring is immense.
If North African economies take off now that they are no longer at the service of ruling families and their coteries, the flow of desperate immigrants into Europe will diminish.
But the European Union has split again, with Germany rejecting the Libyan mission.
A semi-isolationist Germany has reduced European strategy to an oxymoron.
That in turn has relieved Cameron of the old British dilemma: Should it favour its European or American ties? With the European Union going AWOL, the answer is obvious.
Still, it’s imperative that Obama’s European trip serve to focus Europe on debt relief, trade incentives, credit and private investment in Egypt and beyond.
A condition of the Arab transformation is that reform must equal opportunity.
Another is that Saudi anger over Obama’s pro-democracy tilt not be reflected in Saudi funding of counterrevolution from Cairo to Tunis.
Like the Pakistanis, the Saudis could also show their irritation by tilting toward China, which needs its oil.
The Saudi capacity for mischief is never to be doubted.
With Arab reform now “not a secondary interest,” in the words of Obama, but US dependence on Riyadh for oil and Yemeni counterterrorism still great, the Saudi dilemma has intensified.
It’s one that demands solid, un-slavish USBritish unity to avoid the mother of explosions.