Following Obama's stunning foray into UK politics with his anti-Brexit oped (which surprised both the pro and anti-Brexit camp as there was little to be gained from Obama's gracious entrance of an elephant in a UK political China store) on Thursday evening, one person who had a rather visceral reaction was London Mayor Boris Johnson who slammed Obama's "hypocritical" Brexit diatribe and accused Obama "ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender" on being part-Kenyan.
Needless to say at this point any rational dialog ended, and even though Johnson had many valid points, they all got lost in the quasi ad hominem din.
However, a far more tempered op-ed appeared in The Telegraph by Janet Daley, one in which she does not invoke Obama's African heritage, but rather his achievements, or lack thereof, in the global arena, and asks point blank:"Why should we take advice from a president who has surrendered the world to chaos?"
I wonder who in Downing Street briefed Barack Obama’s team on the wording of his friendly warning to the British. Somebody obviously pointed out that the population of this country retained a quaint obsession with the Second World War, and would therefore treat any reference to the glorious dead as irreproachable. So the President invoked the European graves of those American servicemen who died to protect – well, what exactly?
I thought it was the democratic values and reverence for national independence that Britain shared with the US. Did Mr Obama have any sense at all that what he was now urging the British electorate to accept was precisely the surrender of those sacred principles of democratically accountable government and self-determination for which the combined American and British forces had made their ultimate sacrifice?
Could this bizarre intervention have been more cynical or wilfully misinformed? In the end, it seemed to come down to trade advantages – to what might once, back in the day, have been called the global interests of US corporate capitalism. Mr Obama even made specific reference in his article in Friday’s Daily Telegraph to the importance of current negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would reduce barriers to US business interests in the European Union.
On the same day, 38 Degrees – a front group for the more proactive elements in the public sector unions – took out full-page newspaper adverts campaigning against the adoption of TTIP (“…no trade deal should give corporations more power than people”). If the Labour Left were not in such disingenuous disarray, they could be making a meal of this. In any event, unnamed US trade officials were being ominously quoted as saying that, in the event of Brexit, the UK would come very low on America’s list of priorities for new trade agreements.
Then Mr Obama himself abandoned such subtlety in his joint press conference with the Prime Minister. Should the UK go its own way, he said, there would be no trade agreement with the US any time soon. Maybe some time down the line, as he put it, we could work something out. But the UK would be “in the back of the queue” because the US would be dealing with the big boys. So this isn’t a warning: it’s a threat. Stay in the EU and make way for American competitors, or else.
The iron fist of a message inside that velvet glove of carefully recited claptrap about the special relationship is that Obama’s America wants us to stay in the conveniently monolithic, homogeneous trading bloc with which it can most easily do business. In other words, the tentative US economic recovery needs us to sacrifice our country’s judicial independence and the primacy of our parliamentary system, just as the US once sacrificed so many of its young military officers for our survival. That’s the deal.
But there is no indication, either in Mr Obama’s words or his actual foreign policy, that America would now be prepared to make another such sacrifice for its allies. The withdrawal of the US from world leadership – from being what Mr Obama’s people refer to disparagingly as “the world’s policeman” – has been one of the most dramatic developments on the international stage of the past eight years.
Into the vacuum left by that withdrawal has stepped (or strode) Vladimir Putin, who can’t believe his luck. At just the moment when Russian national pride desperately needed a renaissance after the mortifying collapse of the Soviet Union and the infuriating rise of all those Lilliputian upstarts in the old Eastern Bloc, along comes a US president who announces in no uncertain terms that America wants to pull out of the global power game. Make no mistake, this began long before the funk over removing Assad in Syria – which Mr Obama has outrageously blamed on David Cameron’s failure to win a parliamentary vote – or the “leading from behind” fiasco in Libya, which Mr Obama also blames on Mr Cameron for having the audacity to think that the US might have been prepared to lead from the front. No, the Obama isolationist doctrine was there from the start: deliberate and consciously chosen.
It began in his first term as president when he visited Eastern Europe and gave a series of speeches to make the point: the countries that had once required America’s protection from a Soviet superpower were now emerging democracies and fledgling free-market success stories. They could take care of themselves militarily in future. The interceptor missiles that had been scheduled to arrive in Poland, courtesy of the US, would not be delivered. Although they had never been intended as any sort of threat against Moscow, Obama still allowed this move to be seen as part of his “reset” of relations with post-Soviet Russia.
At home, this was presented as a refusal to pay forever for the protection of a Europe that was no longer threatened by aggressive Communism. The disproportionate share of the Nato budget that the US had been stumping up could be better spent on the kind of welfare and health provision that Europeans took for granted.
All this suited Putin’s self-image as a global strongman perfectly. America and the West had definitively won the Cold War, and were now apparently unconcerned that they might lose the peace. Putin saw clearly that no one would stand in his way when he launched his irredentist assault on eastern Ukraine. Not only did he annex Crimea but the forces he had unleashed shot a civilian airliner out of the sky – which might have been seen as a contemporary sinking of the Lusitania. He went from triumph to triumph, playing hard-faced poker against Washington’s half-hearted attempt at chess. In the Middle East, Obama’s White House scarcely shows any interest now that it is no longer dependent on the region for oil. It can only be roused to do what is minimally required to keep Americans safe from Isil terrorism.
But permitting Russia’s proxy, Assad, to remain in place in Syria, as American inaction does, drives every dissident in the region into the arms of anti-Western extremism, and puts American (and European) security at the mercy of a Russia-Syria alliance. Not to mention the salient fact that Assad’s genocidal tyranny fuelled the migrant rush to the European borders. Was Mr Obama aware of that great success story of EU collaboration, in which an emergency was turned into an international tragedy by bureaucratic incompetence and a complete collapse of cooperative goodwill? The abandonment of border checks inside the EU, combined with the unilateral decision by Germany to encourage mass entry, created a living hell in which organised people-trafficking on an industrial scale became a fixture of life.
When this referendum began, what seems an eternity ago, I was unsure how I would vote. Membership of the EU on a day-to-day basis is pretty much all gain for me, because I am an affluent professional who benefits from the supply of inexpensive domestic help, willing tradesmen and convenient travel that the EU provides. Unlike those whose wages are being undercut by cheap imported labour, or who cannot afford to buy their own homes because of the pressure on housing from unlimited immigration, I have lost nothing.
But I believe in democratic legitimacy, which means paying attention to people who do not have my advantages. So should I go for self-interest, or for political principle? Watching this campaign, with its unscrupulous attempts to bully and terrorise a brave and conscientious electorate, has made up my mind. I shall be voting for Leave.