Obama and Cameron: the Tory apologists strike back

Irwin Stelzer takes on James Macintyre

The "excellent James Macintyre" (to quote Telegraph religion editor George Pitcher) is away on holidays, so may I step forward and offer a defence of my colleague? James has been annoying the Tory leadership for months now with his various scoops - on the Boris/Cameron row over Crossrail; on Jewish leaders' reactions to Cameron's alliance with Polish MEP - and former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland party - Michal Kaminski; and on Obama's private view of David Cameron - but it is the latter revelations that seemed to have really touched a nerve inside Conservative Central Office. Various anonymous diarists have tried to discredit James's story on Obama and Cameron in last week's magazine and, today, Irwin Stelzer, the neoconservative American economist piles in on James in, of all places, the Guardian:

"With Labour's poll numbers headed south, and its policy cupboard bare, its fans have decided that the personal is, indeed, the political. So what better than to argue that David Cameron is regarded as all sizzle and no substance by the most popular political figure on the world stage, Barack Obama. The US president, we are told in the New Statesman, regards Gordon Brown as a man of "substance", but David Cameron as all "sizzle".

Leave aside the Cameron team's assertion that they have checked with White House sources and hear only denials. They would say that, wouldn't they? Ask instead whether it is reasonable to assume that super-cautious Obama, a lawyer without an impetuous bone in his body, is likely to have derided a man with whom he might have to do business for years to come. The answer is that Obama is as likely to have shared that thought with Cameron's political opponents as Thomas More was to have told Richard Rich of his opposition to Henry VIII's divorce."

Three points are worth making here, in response:

1) Who said Obama shared his thoughts with Cameron's "political opponents"? James simply reported that it is an open secret at one of Britain's leading newspapers that a member of the Obama camp relayed, in confidence, to a senior editorial staffer, the President's instinctive reaction to meeting Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron back to back. Blair: sizzle and substance. Brown: substance. Cameron: sizzle. Government insiders on both sides of the Atlantic indiscreetly share such "secrets" with senior journalists all the time. Stelzer, as a man of great knowledge, intelligence, and learning, should know that, shouldn't he?

2) Tory apologists claim that an American leader would never be so foolish as to criticise, upset or annoy a British ally, future or otherwise. But they forget their own (recent) history. Republican President George W. Bush is alleged to have been so annoyed by fellow conservative Michael Howard's belated oppostion to the Iraq war that he was barred from visiting the White House. And, of course, as James pointed out in his original piece, Prime Minister John Major famously infuriated presidential candidate Bill Clinton when Central Office staffers became involved in George Bush Snr's re-election campaign back in 1992. Again, a man of Stelzer's transatlantic knowledge and experience, should know all this, shouldn't he?

3) Stelzer, like the diarists, focuses on only one part of James's story, conveniently ignoring what I would argue is the more substantive element: that members of the Obama foreign policy team have been circulating British newspaper reports on Cameron's dodgy alliance with Mical Kaminski and, in the words of one Democratic Party source close to the State Department, and quoted by James, "There are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team." Why wouldn't there be? Did Stelzer and other Cameron cheerleaders really think the hard-headed Democratic foreign-policy realists inside the White House and the State Department would simply ignore the Tory leader's isolationism in Europe and his cuddling up to far-right reactionaries in the name of the (mythical) "special relationship"? That wouldn't be "change we can believe in", would it?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.