Gov. Mitt Romney finishes up his overseas trip to Britain, Israel and Poland this week. The trip began inauspiciously, due to what some called Romney’s “gaffe” about the London Olympic Games. “There are a few things that were disconcerting,” said Romney, who organized the Salt Lake Games in 2002, when asked about London’s preparations. That rather bland remark—which turned out to be at least partly accurate, as ticket and transportation problems have plagued the Games—became the narrative for most major media outlets. But if anyone cares to know what a gaffe really looks and sounds like, consider President Barack Obama’s treatment of the very allies Romney visited.
It pays to recall that Obama began his presidency with a series of major gaffes and outright insults to America’s closest ally.
With little fanfare—in fact, it was kept quiet for many weeks—Obama discreetly returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British government soon after his inauguration. During his predecessor’s administration, the statue rested in an honored place near the president’s desk—an unmistakable symbol of the special relationship between these two great, liberal democracies. When the Obama administration dismissed reports that Sir Winston’s likeness had been tossed out like so much remodeling debris—employing its trademark self-righteous rhetoric by calling those reports “100 percent false”—it was discovered that the denials were false. As the British Embassy in Washington reported, the bust was loaned to the White House “in the wake of 9/11 as a signal of the strong transatlantic relationship…The new president has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned. It is on display at the ambassador’s residence.”
Obama White House officials vainly explained that they were talking about a different Churchill bust—one was given in the 1960s, another after 9/11—but the damage was already done. “Barack Obama Sends Bust of Winston Churchill on its Way Back to Britain,” blasted a London Telegraph headline from February 2009.
Sadly, that would be the first of many slights and gaffes Obama directed Britain’s way. In a terrible breach of protocol, Obama met with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, before meeting with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Worse, Obama cut short a meeting with Brown to visit with the Boy Scouts. British media described Brown as humiliated by the snub. Even worse, when the two leaders met and engaged in the customary exchange of gifts, Obama gave Brown 25 DVD movies. “The Prime Minister gave Mr. Obama an ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet…a framed commission for HMS Resolute and a first edition of the seven-volume biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert,” the Daily Mail reported. (“Rudeness personified towards Britain,” howled The Daily Telegraph.) And worst of all, the Obama administration offloaded a handful of GITMO detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda—without consulting Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
Indeed, in areas of shared interest, like NATO military operations, Obama deeply disappointed Britain. Early on in Libya, the White House talked about a “time-limited, scope-limited” mission. In fact, the U.S. was so eager to step back from the lead role it played in the first week of Libya operations that Britain and France had to request assistance from U.S. aircraft before they could be deployed on strike missions. William Hague, Britain’s foreign minister, urged allied nations to “expand” their efforts, pointedly adding, “That is why the United Kingdom in the last weeks supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets that threaten the civilian population. Of course, it would be welcome if other countries did the same.” Hague was politely directing his message at Washington. The U.S. accounted for 90 of the 206 NATO planes initially deployed in support of Unified Protector, and an even higher percentage of the planes capable of carrying out precision ground-attack missions. However, the U.S. contribution plummeted to a tiny handful of planes after the first two weeks. As a result, Britain and France were left straining to play a lead role in NATO—a role they are simply not equipped to play.
Poland, too, knows how it feels to get the Obama treatment.
Obama pulled the rug out from under Poland (and the Czech Republic) in order to ink a bad arms control treaty with Russia. Worried about Iran’s nukes and missiles, Europe had agreed to a NATO-wide missile defense system during the Bush administration. It was a courageous decision on Poland’s part (Warsaw was exposing itself to Russian ire by agreeing to allow permanent U.S. missile-defense bases on its soil) and an impressive diplomatic feat on the Bush administration’s part (most of NATO had taken an agnostic stand on missile defense for decades).
But for Obama, a hard-earned diplomatic victory by previous administrations and the fate of Poland were less important than his “Russian reset.” So he abruptly scrapped NATO’s plans for a permanent defense against missile threats. (Talk about unilateralism.) It pleased the Russians, but it humiliated the Poles and Czechs. A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.” The Czech Republic announced that it was withdrawing from Obama’s scaled-down alternative system, angrily rejecting Washington’s revised plans as “a consolation prize.”
Some dismissed Poland’s reaction as paranoia. However, as the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. Just consider that Russian war games often involve simulated nuclear strikes against, and invasions of, Poland.
Just as bad, the perception that the U.S. had taken Moscow’s side was a humiliating diplomatic blow for Poles and a bitter reminder of the West’s indifference to their security before and after World War II. As historian George Weigel concluded, “When the administration announced this betrayal on the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner, it raised a very large question mark in Polish minds about the administration’s strategy, its grasp of the history of east-central Europe, and its understanding of the linkage between the two.”
As to gaffes, Obama recently stunned and sickened Poland by using the term “Polish death camps” in a speech. Poland has never run death camps. The Nazis and the Soviets did, and many Poles died in those murder mills. As Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski observed, Obama’s word choice was a matter of “ignorance and incompetence.”
And to that list, we might add “insensitivity.” Indeed, the longer this goes on, the less we can blame Obama’s treatment of allies on things like ignorance and incompetence. The harsh reality may be that he just doesn’t care about allies.
Take the example of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. In one of those “hot mic” incidents that have come to haunt Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, called the Israeli PM “a liar.” Instead of gently correcting Sarkozy, diplomatically changing the subject or better yet, defending Netanyahu and the besieged nation of Israel, Obama joined in the gripe session. “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,” he sighed.
It was only one of many glimpses into Obama’s pettiness vis-à-vis Israel. In 2010, Obama made Netanyahu wait for an hour before meeting with the Israeli leader. We didn’t hear much about it from Obama’s dutiful press here in the States, but newspapers on the other side of the Atlantic took notice. ABritish newspaper reported that Obama’s boorishness “appeared designed to show Mr. Netanyahu how low his stock had fallen in Washington…Mr. Obama treated his guest to a series of slights. Photographs of the meeting were forbidden and an Israeli request to issue a joint-statement…was turned down.”
“There is no humiliation exercise that the Americans did not try on the prime minister and his entourage,” declared an Israeli newspaper.
During that same 2010 meeting, Obama reportedly presented Netanyahu with “a list of 13 demands designed both to the end the feud with his administration and to build Palestinian confidence.” Where were the demands on Hamas, which pelts Israel with dozens of rocket attacks per month?
Indeed, perhaps nowhere is Obama’s postmodern moral relativism more distressing than vis-à-vis Israel, a tiny island of free government and free people in a sea of chaos, terror and autocracy. The White House seems to equate the construction of housing settlements by Israel with acts of terror by Hamas. And when Israel responds with force to those acts of terror, Israel’s response is lumped in with the initial attacks.
If Obama was surly and cavalier with every nation, it would be shortsighted and ugly—but at least consistent and fair. The fact that he offers an extended hand to those at odds with U.S. interests, while close allies in Britain, Israel and Poland are treated to snubs, slights and backhands is not only shortsighted and ugly, but also inconsistent, incongruent, unfair and just plain wrong.
Perhaps Romney’s foreign trip has sent a signal that things can be different.
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