President Obama extolled the virtues of diplomacy Monday for his administration’s “breakthroughs” with U.S. adversaries Iran and Cuba, while traditional allies Britain and Saudi Arabia seethed at the president for undercutting the British prime minister and calling the Saudis “free riders.”
During a meeting with U.S. diplomats in Foggy Bottom, Mr. Obama praised Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his foreign service team for carrying out his administration’s “strong, principled diplomacy” on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreement.
“There are those who criticize our commitment to diplomacy, for investing so much effort in trying to resolve conflicts that seem intractable,” Mr. Obama said. “But here’s the truth: Conflicts and wars do not end on their own. Breakthroughs do not just happen. Agreements don’t write themselves. It takes diplomacy, being willing to sit down with others.”
Here is another truth: Mr. Obama’s own words on foreign policy are causing a diplomatic backlash from London to Riyadh.
In an interview last week with The Atlantic, the president warned that Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the U.S. if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. The phrase is weighted with meaning in the United Kingdom because Prime Minister Winston Churchill popularized it 70 years ago.
Mr. Obama also blamed British Prime Minister David Cameron in part for the mess in Libya. He said Mr. Cameron stopped paying attention to the deteriorating security situation because he was “distracted by a range of other things.”
The White House hurriedly issued a statement of appeasement, saying Mr. Cameron “has been as close a partner as the president has had.” But the resentment in the United Kingdom hasn’t died down, with The Times of London carrying a front-page headline “Obama lays blame for Libya mess on Cameron,” and The Independent’s headline blaring, “Obama savages Cameron on Libya.”
Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said the criticism from Mr. Obama was a “bit rich.”
“I think, if there’s criticism, looking at your own actions is sometimes appropriate,” Mr. Rifkind said.
Alan Duncan, a conservative member of Parliament, wrote on Twitter: “Obama leaves Iraq in a mess, disengages from the Mid East, does nothing in Syria, Libya or Palestine & then blames us. Not much of a legacy.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson piled on Mr. Obama with an op-ed criticizing the president for meddling in the upcoming EU referendum, calling it “a piece of outrageous and exorbitant hypocrisy” because the U.S. protects its own sovereignty with “hysterical vigilance.” He said Mr. Obama’s claim that Britain would lose global influence if it leaves the bloc is “wholly fallacious.”
Referring to reports that Mr. Obama plans to visit the United Kingdom this spring to weigh in on the matter, Mr. Johnson said:
“Air Force One will touch down; a lectern with the presidential seal will be erected. The British people will be told to be good to themselves, to do the right thing. We will be informed by our most important ally that it is in our interests to stay in the EU, no matter how flawed we may feel that organization to be.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the U.S. “deeply values” Great Britain as part of the European Union, but administration officials also “recognize that the British people are going to decide.”
“We’re certainly entirely respectful of the process that the British people have established to consider this question, and when asked … we haven’t hesitated to make our views known as well,” Mr. Earnest said.
And then there’s Saudi Arabia.
Also in the Atlantic interview, Mr. Obama referred to the crucial Middle Eastern ally as a “free rider” on American foreign policy and criticized Riyadh for what he said was its funding of religious intolerance and refusal to come to an accommodation with Iran.
A senior Saudi prince hit back at the president Monday.
“No, Mr. Obama. We are not ‘free riders,’” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington and London, wrote in an open letter carried by the local Arab News English-language daily.
In his letter, Prince Turki asked whether Mr. Obama had “pivoted to Iran so much you equate the kingdom’s 80 years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy, that continues to arm, fund and support sectarian militias in the Arab and Muslim world.”
The prince enumerated Riyadh’s support for Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group, its humanitarian aid for refugees in the region and its creation of an Islamic anti-terrorism coalition.
Mr. Obama also raised eyebrows for referring to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, as Gotham, a corrupt metropolis controlled by a cartel of thugs in the 2008 Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” He likened the Islamic State to the Joker.
“Then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire,” Mr. Obama said.
During his pep talk at the State Department on Monday, the president noted that his administration has only 10 months remaining.
“Let’s keep it going,” Mr. Obama told the diplomats. “Let’s finish strong. Let’s run through the tape.”
He said his administration had the “courage” to restore diplomatic relations with communist Cuba after more than 50 years of Cold War isolation. Mr. Obama will visit Cuba for three days, beginning Sunday, despite criticism from opponents such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, that the administration’s move has worsened conditions for ordinary Cubans.
“Next week I look forward to being the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years without a battleship accompanying me,” Mr. Obama said.
Despite Iran’s belligerence in testing several ballistic missiles last week, Mr. Obama said the nuclear deal ensures that Tehran “will not get its hands on a nuclear weapon.”
The president also made a reference to U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Libya in 2012 during an extremist attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
“Dedicated personnel have made, in come cases, the ultimate sacrifice, because the world can be dangerous — including Chris Stevens,” Mr. Obama said, noting that the U.S. also has lost an embassy guard in Turkey and two local staff members in Pakistan. “There are real risks involved in being a diplomat.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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