How Obama lost Europe

Story highlights

  • Despite eloquent promises to be a best friend to Europe, Obama has been a big disappointment, says Simon Tisdall
  • Tisdall asks: When Obama speaks out in favor of the EU this week, why should British voters pay him any attention?

Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist at The Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and The Observer and served as White House correspondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

London (CNN)Barack Obama's visit to London this week may be his final curtain call as U.S. President. It's likely to be the last time he dines with the Queen at Windsor Castle.

    But Obama's brief drop-by, on his way to Germany from Saudi Arabia, will be remembered not for its pomp or pageantry, but for his extraordinary appeal to British voters not to leave the European Union in June's national referendum.

    Is he really Europe's best friend?

    The nerve of the man! Many Euroskeptic Britons have already expressed dismay, and not a little anger, at Obama's anticipated intervention in what they say is a domestic issue.
    Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and a possible successor to prime minister David Cameron, called Obama a "hypocrite." No American politician would allow an unelected, external authority like the EU Commission to override U.S. laws and border controls, Johnson complained.
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    Obama is already on a sticky wicket, to use a cricketing metaphor, for more substantive reasons. Despite eloquent promises to be a best friend to Europe, made in a celebrated speech before an adoring crowd of Berliners in July 2008, when he was still a senator, Obama has been a big disappointment.
    So what right has he to lecture Britain and Europe about the best way to order their affairs?

    Putin steps in

    Obama's main first-term foreign focus was not on Europe but on extricating the U.S. from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His major geo-strategic policy shift, spelled out in 2012, was the so-called "pivot to Asia."
    Containing or at least managing China's rise, and strengthening military, political and trade alliances with the new superpower's neighbors, was now U.S. priority number one. Europe? That's so Old World.
    This realignment has had serious consequences for Europeans. A sudden wake-up call came in early 2014 when Russia, after a long period testing Nato's defenses, invaded and annexed Crimea and backed rebels fighting the pro-EU government of Ukraine.
    In sum, President Vladimir Putin took advantage of a perceived, reduced U.S. commitment to Europe to launch his illegal land grab. Obama took his eye off the ball. Putin picked it up and ran with it.
    Putin made a similar play in Syria last autumn, intervening militarily to rescue the pro-Moscow regime of Bashar al-Assad. Obama had dithered too long.
    He famously changed his mind at the last minute about a 2013 bombing campaign to punish al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. His support for the pro-western opposition appeared half-hearted. A power vacuum developed. Putin filled it.

    Europe clears up the mess

    For Europe and the EU, Obama's diffidence was disastrous. By 2015, the flood of Syrian refugees had turned into a torrent. Although Germany accepted 1 million entrants in 12 months, the migrants kept coming, their numbers swelled by Iraqis and Afghans fleeing America's half-finished wars.
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    EU unity cracked at the seams amid bitter recriminations about border controls and quotas. Yet Obama just looked on, just like he did during the eurozone financial crisis and Greece's near bankruptcy.
    Obama even has the cheek to blame Europe for Libya's descent into chaos following the 2011 western intervention. Obama did not want to get involved in another Middle East war. He encouraged Britain and France to take the lead.
    And he and Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, largely left it to them to clear up the mess after Gadhafi was toppled. Predictably, they failed, just as the U.S. failed in post-Saddam Iraq. Now he says Cameron was "distracted" and let Libya degenerate into what The Atlantic says he privately called a "s**tshow."

    What's he actually achieved?

    Even Obama's flagship foreign policy "success" -- agreeing a compromise with Iran over its suspect nuclear program -- looks like a mixed blessing to many in Europe. Obama rejected the fears of Iran's Arab rivals (and Israel) that he had handed Tehran a massive, no-cost victory through the ending of western sanctions, especially on oil.
    Obama's placatory visit to Saudi Arabia this week was an attempt to calm these fears.
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    Europe's list of disappointments does not end here. In Prague in 2009, Obama promised a new drive to rid the world of nuclear weapons. It did not happen.
    In Cairo, in the same year, he offered a reset in relations with the Muslim world. Matters just got worse, with the rise of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), an upsurge in terrorist attacks in Europe's cities, and the collapse of Israel-Palestinian peace hopes.
    The President pledged to lead efforts to combat climate change. But Copenhagen was a catastrophe, barely rescued in Paris last year. And EU leaders were then outraged by revelations that their "best friend" had been tapping their cellphones.
    Like so much else that Obama has said over the past eight years, his words were not matched by actions. In London's East End, they have a phrase describing such a person: "All talk and no trousers."
    Given all this, when Obama speaks out in favor of the EU this week, why should British voters pay him any attention?