Back in the 80’s Margaret Thatcher’s critics in the Labor Party referred to the British Prime Minister as “Reagan’s Poodle“. The two conservative icons sometimes disagreed during their largely overlapping and transformative times in office (economic sanctions against Russia; “Star Wars”), but generally believed in a “special relationship” between the United States and Britain as well as parallel domestic and foreign policy strategies. Both confronted labor; both favored a robust international presence. Opponents of Thatcher’s policies tried to appeal to British nationalism by picturing her as being subordinate to the American president, but the personal bond remained strong.
The parallel today is certainly not the relationship between Barack Obama and David Cameron. The Conservative Party Prime Minister has a large raft of problems – the potential secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom; growth of the right wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which would seceed from the European Union; and the threat of jihadi’s returning to stoke England’s substantial Muslim population. For his part, Obama has made it clear that there is no “special relationship” – snubbing Thatcher’s 2013 funeral and breaking with The UK on Middle East policy. Some of this is understandable, given the Left/Right split of the Democratic president and the Conservative prime minister; some is due to Obama’s anti imperial world view as reflected in Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America”. If not Cameron, who is Obama’s sidekick?
Ironically, the world leader that Barack Obama keeps bumping into is not David Cameron, Angela Merkel of Germany, David Harper of Canada, Li Keqing of China, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Narendra Modi of India, or Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. It is Vladimir Putin of Russia – and there is little doubt about who the poodle is.
The beginning of the end of the relationship probably occured in Libya in 2011, when Putin allowed a United Nations resolution to protect civilians from the Kadhafy regime, and the western allies went on to support his overthrow and murder, ultimately resulting in near-total chaos. For Obama, the “leading from behind” euphamism was born; for chess grand master Putin, it was clear that Obama could hardly play checkers.
The poodle relationship clearly emerged in Syria later in 2011, when Obama declared – without any plan – that Assad must go. Then came the “red line” on use of chemical weapons which was promptly violated by Assad, leaving Obama totally exposed. Putin grabbed the leash by getting Assad to agree to (mostly) give up his chemical stockpiles, Obama slinked off, and after three years of dithering the civil war is approaching 200,000 killed, ISIS has emerged as the greatest threat to world peace in decades, and we have no strategy. If we are lucky, Putin will give one to Obama; he does, afterall, have an interest in eliminating ISIS and he seems to shape events.
The facts in the Ukraine are different, but the relationship between the leaders is the same. We and the Europeans encourage the Ukrainian leadership to shift their alignment to the west and oust an elected president; Putin takes the Crimea, we do little; Putin supports secessionists in eastern Ukraine, we do little; Putin offers a ceasefire with a likely de facto partition of the country (as he did in Georgia in 2008); Obama visits Estonia to emphasize that what is OK in non-NATO south central Europe should not be attmpted in the northern NATO countries. Putin yanks on the leash.
Hopefully, Obama’s national security team is smart enough to recognize the difference between eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the prior case, there are some messy border circumstances left over from the breakup of the Soviet Union, and it is natural to expect some adjustments when Russia has a strong leader and the American leader is weak. ISIS is quantum more dangerous for its neighbors, and for world security – if we have to accept a Russian solution in Syria, that is better than the Obama administration’s emerging “containment” objective. Arf!!!
This week’s video is from an old West Wing episode – hardly a case of art imitating life in the Obama era.