Hasan Suroor

U.K. fury over Obama's ‘BP-bashing’

If English nationalism was in full cry in South Africa last week as England played their opening World Cup match against America, back home, the entire nation (not just England) was seized by a wave of anti-Americanism over what was seen as “anti-British rhetoric” coming out of Washington in the wake of the BP oil spill crisis.

“USA vs Britain'' /England vs USA” read the front page of a leading British newspaper on Saturday as, in Rustenburg, England limbered up for their match against America and, in London, pressure mounted on Prime Minister David Cameron to launch a “fight back” against American “assault” on BP.

Over the past week everyone — from British businesses and the political class to the media — has been raging with fury against alleged “Britain-bashing” by Americans. And, in a sign that Britain's honeymoon with the Obama presidency may have started to wane, much of the anger is directed against Barack Obama himself. He has been accused of using “undiplomatic” language to “beat” BP while ignoring the failings of his own regulators.

The President's remark that his administration would not hesitate to put the “boot on the throat of BP” is seen to have diminished his reputation for “civility and eloquence,” as The Times put it saying that such language was “more reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson than John F. Kennedy.”

A screaming headline in the right-wing Daily Telegraph read, “Obama's boot on the throat of British pensioners” blaming the fall in BP's share price on President Obama's “aggressive rhetoric” and highlighting its impact on British pension funds who have invested in BP.

Even liberal pro-Obama commentators feel that his choice of words has been “uncharacteristic” of a man respected for his eloquence. Writing in the Left-wing Independent, a self-confessed admirer of President Obama said she felt “let down” by his “unattractive, undignified and, more importantly just plain unfair” attacks on BP.

The Financial Times called Washington's response “crudely populist” and “faintly xenophobic” saying the President “should stop treating BP as a hostile and alien entity.”

American “double standards”

Business leaders have attacked President Obama for being “prejudicial and personal” in dealing with BP. There have also been allegations of American “double standards” with the furore over BP being contrasted with America's “silence” when its own companies have been involved in criminal negligence abroad, such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and numerous “accidents” in Africa.

Newspapers have been deluged with letters from angry readers complaining that there is a nasty “anti-British” mood prevailing in America, fuelled by American Government's hostile comments. One Times' reader suggested that BP should change its name to Amoco, an American oil company it bought some years ago.

“That might put an end to the BP bashing that is taking place,” he wrote. Another pointed out that while BP was being attacked there was “no mention of the U.S. companies involved — Transocean, which owns the rig; and Halliburton, which was responsible for the sealing; or of the U.S. authorities responsible for overseeing offshore drilling.”

Politicians of all hues were quick to jump on the anti-U.S. bandwagon warning that America's “aggressive” attacks on BP could damage British-U.S. relations. London's Tory Mayor Boris Johnson called for an end to “buck passing and name calling” telling the BBC: “It starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the international airwaves.”

Others were even more outspoken. One senior Tory MP accused President Obama of turning an accident into an “anti-British issue” while the Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway, urged the White House to ponder whether it was right to “interfere in the operations of an international overseas company.”

So, is the supposedly rock-solid British-U.S. “special” relationship in danger of hitting the skids?

Mounting pressure

Barely four weeks into office, the last thing that the new British government wants is a diplomatic row with its closest ally and Mr. Cameron is trying hard not to be bullied into picking a fight with Washington so early in the innings. But, faced with mounting pressure, he was forced to raise the issue with President Obama in a telephone conversation at the weekend.

From the sanitised official version, according to which Mr. Cameron “stressed the economic importance of BP to the U.K., U.S. and other countries,” it is not clear how exactly (if at all) he conveyed to the President British anger over his “anti-British rhetoric.” Understandably, Downing Street was more keen to publicise the President's “assurance” that American “frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity [of BP].” But, then, he would say that, wouldn't he?

Meanwhile, Britons must decide once and for all whether or not they regard BP as a British company. Britons have objected to the U.S. administration, including President Obama himself, “pointedly” referring to BP as “British Petroleum” though this has not been its name since 1998 (guess what it calls itself? “Beyond Petroleum”!). It is claimed that BP is a multinational company, employing more workers in America than it does in Britain, and by insisting on referring to it as “British Petroleum” Americans are deliberately fuelling anti-British sentiment.

The question is: if BP is not a British company then why this angst over “BP-bashing” and such intense pressure on the government to defend it? The fact is that a change of signboard notwithstanding BP remains very much a British company deeply embedded in British economy and the country's political establishment.

Why this coyness then?

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