Britain's Splendid Isolation

Obama removed a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office and is not an Anglophile. Is the special relationship becoming common?

President Barack Obama has been busted. Not for smoking outside the Oval Office, but for removing Winston Churchill's bust from it and substituting one of Abraham Lincoln. After September 11, the British government lent George W. Bush a bronze bust of the great man by Sir Jacob Epstein. Bush himself frequently referred to Churchill in his speeches and attended the opening of a Churchill exhibition at the Library of Congress. Churchill's stark distinction between good and evil was something that Bush sought to emulate. So pervasive is admiration for Churchill that the British historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a forthcoming book, St. Winston, that, among other things, examines the curious history of American veneration for the British statesman.

Now Obama has conceivably done more to weaken America's defenses than any other action he has taken since entering office. The British, for one thing, are in a hugger-mugger over the dislodging of one of their greatest prime ministers.  According to the Daily Telegraph, "the rejection of the bust has left some British officials nervously reading the runes to see how much influence the UK can wield with the new regime in Washington." Indeed.

Perhaps the special relationship has lost some of its luster. During the Bush years, British writers like Andrew Roberts, who wrote a paean to the British Empire, were in favor. Bush reveled in the idea that the United States, like England, represented the march of progress, bringing enlightenment to the natives. Now all that is gone. Writing in National Review online, Niles Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation's "Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom" voiced his perturbation:

"The Special Relationship is vital to American and British interests on many levels, from military, diplomatic, and intelligence cooperation to transatlantic trading ties. If President Obama does not invest in its preservation, the end result will be a weaker United States that is less able to stand up to terrorism and tyranny, and project power and influence on the world stage."

Bush's war on terror was, in many ways, founded on an interpretation of Churchill-that appeasement is folly; that enemies must be crushed, not engaged; and that, in short, there is no middle way. Churchill, you could argue, has had a mischievous effect upon conservatives. David Frum and Richard Perle's An End To Evil ended by referring to David Low's cartoon from 1940 featuring a lonely British solider declaring, "Very well, alone." Meanwhile, Tony Blair blared his support for Bush, but Gordon Brown may not find as receptive a welcome. At Foreign Policy's website, Will Inboden wondered, "what other former British leader's likeness should Brown bring as a gift to replace Churchill in the Oval Office?"

It's a tough call. Obama, it's been widely speculated, is not as keen on the British empire as some of his predecessors. Imperial pomp may leave him cold. The flags, marching bands, pith helmets and glinting swords didn't always represent the spread of freedom, but oppression. Britain crushed the Kenyan Mau Mau Rebellion during Churchill's second tenure as prime minister and Hussein Onyango Obama, the president's grandfather, was apparently among those tortured.

Nor has the British Empire always enjoyed a high reputation in the United States. Forget the Boston Tea Party. American conservatives, at least until Pearl Harbor, used to be violently opposed to the British Empire. Conservatives preached isolationism and wanted nothing to do with empire, which was why many of them opposed American entry into World War II. They didn't want to fight on behalf of the British.

No longer. Now it's American conservatives who tend to be Anglophiles in every way possible, emulating the spread collars and so forth. No other figure is as iconic as Churchill, whose mother, Jennie, was herself an American. Churchill relied on America for sorely needed funds, both in the form of lecture tours and book fees, especially for his history of World War II. He was as much of a financial ward of the United States as his own country.

There may even be something appropriate about Churchill's new exile. The 1930s, which seem to be enjoying a rerun today, were Churchill's wilderness years. He was the lonely prophet, scorned by his own conservative colleagues who insisted that, given enough good will, Hitler could be brought to reason and a reasonable compromise struck with Nazi Germany that would avert war and preserve the peace for generations. It didn't work out that way. But Churchill reveled in being the outsider. His triumph was all the greater once he became prime minister. He spoke for England.

Now as American conservatives enter their wilderness period, perhaps Churchill's banishment will help them steel their resolve to counter the iniquities of the Obama administration. They may even quietly decide that restoring Churchill's bust to the Oval Office should be one of the first acts of a new Republican president. It would represent Churchill's latest comeback. For now, he's back to splendid isolation.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.