PHOTO: Barack Obama stares down British Prime Minister David Cameron and Europe’s “free riders” — Justified criticism or cover-up of President’s foreign policy errors?

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Barack Obama’s visit to Britain this week will undoubtedly bring headlines about the mythical “special relationship” between the US and the United Kingdom. In the midst of the UK’s referendum on European Union membership, it will prompt a political bun fight about the Americans “ordering” Britons how to vote on June 23 after Obama — justifiably but carefully — saying that the US benefits from London staying within the EU. And some stories will fit the US President in the narrative of the glorious Queen’s 90th birthday.

All of this coverage is likely to miss a bigger picture. Behind Obama’s public show of friendship and unity, this is a President who thinks that the US is facing — and is being exploited by — a troublesome Europe.

That is a misleading view, one which is more about covering up Obama’s own failings in foreign policy rather than about an European betrayal of Washington, but — amid crises from Libya to Syria to Afghanistan — it could lay the foundation for further Trans-Atlantic tensions

Obama and the “Free Riders”

Normally a cautious President, Obama has taken a political risk by adopting a commentator named Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes for The Atlantic magazine, as his confidant and therapist. The President has periodically used Goldberg to seek reassurance and vent his frustrations, for example, over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month Goldberg compiled the sessions into a lengthy “legacy” article, with Obama trying to define why he has been right about international affairs and why many others have been wrong. Significantly, those who are “wrong” are not America’s long-standing foes, such as Russia and Vladimir Putin — “Our meetings are very businesslike” — but US allies. Asked by the Australian Prime Minister, “Aren’t the Saudis your friends?”, Obama replies, “It’s complicated.” France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is a braggart. Other Europeans — with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects” — are passive and ineffective.

And Britain? For Obama, the “special relationship” is one where London had not paid its fair share over defense, sheltering beneath the American military. Prime Minister David Cameron is “distracted”, allowing Libya to sink into turmoil after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

Obama summarizes the post-1945 relationship between the US, Britain, and Western Europe — from Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union to today’s crises such as the Syrian conflict:

What has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game….

Free riders aggravate me.

The Free Ridin’ Excuse

The accusation of “free riding” has been part of Washington’s rhetoric for years, with US officials and analysts expressing exasperation that European allies would not follow the US into increases in defense spending to wipe away the “peace dividend” of the 1990s. Neo-conservative commentator Robert Kagan reduced the issue to an alpha-male insult, “Americans Are from Mars, Europeans Are from Venus”. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, declared a divide “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burden of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and costs”. His successor in the Obama Administration, Leon Panetta, warned that Europe’s reticence over defense spending would “hollow out” NATO.

But Obama’s invocation of the “free rider” does not start from the same point. True, he told Prime Minister Cameron, “You have to pay your fair share” over defense. However, European expenditure has risen: Britain has passed NATO’s threshold of 2% of GDP, others such as France and Poland are approaching the target, and Germany is among those increasing resources allocated to the military.

Meanwhile, Obama’s portrayal of “several decades” of European nonchalance is bad history, both for the Cold War and afterwards. Even if the Franco-German “Axis of Weasels” — like Obama — did not support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Europeans were part of the “coalition of the willing” for the 1991 Gulf War, the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the international effort in Afghanistan after 2001, and operations in the Obama era in countries such as Mali.

No, the President’s use of free rider stems far more from his concern over the history of the future, namely how failures in Syria and Libya will be represented.

Obama’s recollections in the Goldberg article pivot on his decision in August 2013 not to intervene after Syria’s Bashar al-Assad killed more than 1,400 of his citizens in chemical attacks near Damascus. This is a valiant US President standing up against the arrogant and misguided within his own Administration, in Washington, and abroad:

I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically.

And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.

But there’s an obvious problem with that historical confrontation. Hundreds of thousands more Syrians have been killed since August 2013, millions more have displaced, President Assad is still in power, and there is no resolution in sight.

So Obama and Goldberg have to go farther in re-assigning blame. First, it is laid upon — in the confidant’s words — “America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East”. Then the finger points at the Europeans, using the case of the Libyan intervention in 2011:

It was precisely in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting that we, by design, insisted [on the operations]. It was part of the anti–free rider campaign.

Thus, Obama’s far-sighted strategy was not just the contemporary rationale of “humanitarian intervention”, saving many thousands of Libyans from Muammar Qaddafi’s military and prisons, but the training of Europeans to pull their weight.

Except the mission went wrong after Qaddafi’s fall. A US ambassador and three other Americans wer killed in an attack on Washington’s consulate in Benghazi. Libya still has two competing governments and many battling militias. Strikes and attacks by the Islamic State have crippled oil production, and the country is a launching point for refugees coming to Europe.

Because Obama cannot blame himself — for he is “very proud” of his record — someone else has to be framed: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”

Escaping Blame

In 1965, Obama’s predecessor Lyndon Johnson also labelled American’s supposed closest ally as a “free rider”. Infuriated that Britain would not commit troops to the Vietnam War, he rejected a request from Prime Minister Harold Wilson for a meeting in Washington: “We got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me.”

It is doubtful that Obama will use such colorful language when he meets students in a town hall meeting in London or when he toasts the Queen at a birthday dinner — that would be discourteous.

But the US President has ensured that the criticism is in place, even as he leaves crises around the world to his successor and to the European and Arab countries that he has derided. Obama can rightly claim credit for achievements such as the rapprochement with Cuba, a steady, pragmatic relationship with China, and a step back from the confrontation, aggression, and abuses of the George W. Bush years.

It is only the catastrophes that he wants to dismiss. So while Lyndon Johnson could not escape the fallout from Vietnam, perhaps Obama can let others bear the cross of the millions affected in other countries — now and for the foreseeable future — a half-century later.

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