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British media debates Obama’s ‘embarrassing’ remarks on Cameron

Obama had faulted British Prime Minister David Cameron and other European allies for shortcomings in dealing with Libya

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

Following an initial uproar from several British newspapers over US President Barack Obama’s remarks on his UK counterpart’s role in Libya last week, the controversy is yet to fade.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Obama had faulted British Prime Minister David Cameron and other European allies for shortcomings in dealing with Libya after the 2011 ouster of Muammar Qaddafi.

“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,” Obama said.

He then singled out the British PM, suggesting Cameron had taken his eye off Libya after being “distracted by a range of other things.”

Referring to the “Libya mess” in private, Obama reportedly used the term, “s*** show.”

Britain and other European nations had joined the U.S. in military action there to prevent a massacre of civilians. Obama told the magazine he had expected European nations to take a more active role in helping Libya during its reconstruction.

The two countries have long been close allies with a so-called “special relationship” exemplified by the close cooperation between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II.

Libya has since descended into chaos and emerged as a potential safe haven for ISIS extremists.

Ties between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were also exceptionally close near the end of the Cold War, and President George W. Bush relied on Tony Blair to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But following Obama’s remarks, the U.S. seemingly scrambled to crush the controversy.

“Prime Minister Cameron has been as close a partner as the president has had, and we deeply value the UK’s contributions on our shared national security and foreign policy objectives which reflect our special and essential relationship,” U.S. spokesman Edward Price told ITV News.

But the British press had already been up in arms over the interview.

Damaging a 'special relationship?'

The Times newspaper said Obama’s criticism was “extraordinary,” while The Independent front page headline read “Obama savages Cameron over Libya.”

The Independent’s story said the remarks would pose a “severe embarrassment to Cameron.”

“The comments will be a severe embarrassment to Mr. Cameron, who has often been forced to defend British involvement in Libya on the grounds that Western intervention helped to avert a bloodbath.

The newspaper also pointed to other contentious points in Obama’s interview, including his “revelation” that the PM had risked damaging the countries’ “special relationship” by delaying an increase in defense spending to meet a NATO target of 2 percent of GDP.

The Independent story added: “Alluding to Mr. Cameron’s foot-dragging, Mr Obama said: ‘Free riders aggravate me.’” Obama was seemingly not only referring to Cameron in this statement, however.

In an editorial published on Saturday, The Independent justified the U.S. president’s viewpoint, but added that "the US should not get off the hook. Western powers, whose 2011 intervention to depose Muammar Qaddafi was critical in reshaping the country, have turned their back on the consequences.”

Overblown?

But more recently in The Guardian, the media storm was described as a “manufactured furor.”

An Observer editorial published on Sunday read: “Barack Obama’s criticism of David Cameron’s alleged neglect of Libya in the aftermath of the British-assisted 2011 revolution against Muammar Qaddafi has been blown out of all proportion.

“This largely manufactured furor obscures a more important story: the apparent beginning of Obama’s attempt to explain and justify his often–controversial handling of international affairs, particularly the Middle East, since he took office in 2009.”

The editorial added: “Such candor ignores potential problems with allies with whom Obama is still obliged to work. In this respect, David Cameron’s sin in becoming ‘distracted’ from the task of post-Qaddafi reconstruction is small beer by comparison with the underperformance of others.”

Changing media reactions

The shift in British media reactions since Obama’s remarks was published has not gone by unnoticed.

“The media’s first reaction was one of shock and surprise, a somewhat nationalistic reaction perhaps of ‘how dare he say that?’ Chris Doyle, the director of The Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday.

“It’s very unusual for a serving American president to be so openly critical of a British prime minister, particularly one with whom he’s had a reasonable relationship on the whole; there hasn’t been any major falling out.

The media’s assessment of Obama’s comments then took several turns, Doyle added.

“Then came a more sober assessment, asking ‘does Obama have a point?’ Most of the media quickly came to a conclusion that yes, in part he’s right that David Cameron did not follow through on Libya, neither did the French.

“Then a final reaction was to ask who’s doing the criticizing here? To what extent is the US administration itself guilty of exactly the same thing, not just with Libya but with other countries as well.”

Whilst taking “potshots” at others, there has been a lot of criticism of President Obama of his handling of Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya included, said Doyle, asking: “Did he ever have his eye on the ball in the first place?”

(With AFP)