Loose lips sink premierships?

It’s not been the best of weeks for David Cameron. If the PM thought he had enough on his plate with a row over the Queen’s position on the EU, there was further unwelcome news yesterday when it emerged President Obama criticised his handling of the war in Libya five years ago. In a wide-ranging interview with an American magazine, the US leader said Cameron had become “distracted by a range of other things” after the removal of Colonel Gaddafi. He also revealed he had played hardball with the British PM over defence spending, warning Cameron he would no longer be able to claim a special relationship with the US if his Government did not meet a 2% GDP defence target.

The interview comes at a dangerous moment for the Prime Minister, who needs every ounce of his gravitas to secure a Remain vote in the forthcoming referendum. However, Obama’s criticism should be seen within the context of the US political scene. A foreign policy realist, the President was seeking to deflect responsibility for a botched military intervention as commentators come to write the final analyses of his time in office. Obama was probably also looking to shield his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from blame, as the Democratic frontrunner  to succeed him faces pointed questions about her role in authorising the mission.

Yet Obama’s reference to “a range of other things” was not accidental. As the Libya intervention was winding down in October 2011, Cameron was facing a high-profile rebellion within Conservative ranks over you’ve guessed it – holding an EU referendum. Foreign policy thinkers close to both Obama and Clinton have long been contemptuous of Tory Euroscepticism, and Obama’s comments appear to presage a more explicit attack on the UK’s drift towards isolationism later in the referendum campaign. Whether Cameron will appreciate the President riding to his rescue after this swipe is a matter of debate.

Photograph: White House

Larry Smith

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search