The London Telegraph reports that Barack Obama has returned a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the British government. The bronze by Sir Jacob Epstein would be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, if it were sold on the open market. It was loaned by the British Government to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks as a gesture of solidarity. Obama turned down a British offer to continue the loan. A bust of Abraham Lincoln now occupies pride of place in the Oval Office.
Obama’s affection for Lincoln – the founder of the Republican Party – is not unworthy, though it is curious. After all, the 16th President combined a limited view of the powers of central government with an expansive view of the wartime powers of the Presidency, which was how he ultimately justified issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln was also an eloquent exponent of the view that nations had to live up to basic standards to merit international recognition, and he publicly expressed the hope that the U.S. and Britain would enjoy perpetual “peace and friendship.” Worthy beliefs all, and all today eminently conservative. There is no evidence that Obama, having just expelled the symbol of that friendship, understands any of these ironies.
Obama has the right to decorate his office as he pleases, though it’s astonishing that this free-spending government is not big enough to accommodate Epstein’s masterpiece. The fact that Churchill was for decades a leading member of the Liberal Party and a founder of a limited British welfare state apparently carries as little weight with Obama as his support of the Special Relationship.
But if Obama’s instincts as an interior decorator are indicative of his substantive policies, there’s trouble ahead. Simply put, Britain is the U.S.’s indispensable ally, and has been so for three generations. And the Special Relationship is not a matter of sentiment. Quite apart from the trading and intelligence ties that bind them, British and American forces are fighting side by side in Afghanistan, a war that Obama has repeatedly endorsed.
Yet he has never said a good word about the Anglo-American alliance, while he has gone out of his way, both during the campaign and after his victory, to extend an “open hand” to states like Iran. This is perverse: Iran is a tyranny and an acknowledged supporter of terrorism. This policy of keeping your enemies close while disavowing your friends will result only in a weaker United States. It is, in fact, exactly the policy that Churchill warned against in the 1930s. Perhaps that is why he was exiled from the Oval Office: he is an uncomfortable reminder of truths the administration appears eager to forget.