Three weeks into Brexit, and President Obama is already singing a different tune. It’s remarkable how quickly the man can modulate from a doom-and-gloom dirge about putting a post-Brexit Britain at the “back of the queue” for any future trade deals to a more pleasant, lilting melody in a major key. The FT:
The Obama administration has begun preliminary discussions with senior UK officials about how they might pursue a trade agreement between the two countries following Britain’s exit from the EU, according to Washington’s top trade official.
The discussions, which Mike Froman, the US trade representative, revealed on Thursday, coincide with a growing push by Republican Brexit supporters in Congress for President Barack Obama to launch talks on a commercial pact quickly.
They also highlight how quickly the president and his administration have backed away from his warnings before last month’s referendum that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deals with the US if it voted to leave the EU.
Incidentally, in the same press conference where Obama made his empty threat, he also said, “Part of being friends is being honest.” Maybe the distance from the back of the line to next in line is short in some cases.
President Obama is doing the right thing by looking into an appropriate trade deal with the UK; what he should not have done is made the empty, hollow threat that leaving the EU would put it at the back of the queue for new trade agreements with the U.S. It makes him, his office, and his country look small.
In itself it’s not a big thing, but its part of a pattern of ill-considered statements leading to inelegant retreats that encourage foreign leaders to keep testing him. How red are his red lines? Inquiring minds want to know.
The worry is that foreign countries—Russia, China, and Iran in particular—have decided that most of Obama’s threats are hollow and that they can push him with impunity. Will they look on the remaining months of his administration as an opportunity to grab what they can? Remember that Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008—right in the middle of election season as an incumbent president prepared to leave office.
Which brings us to another sobering thought: it’s very clear that Vladimir Putin wants Trump, a flawed and unsuitable candidate whose election would reduce American prestige, damage many of our closest alliances, and offer Russia in particular untold opportunities for making mischief, to win. It’s possible that any 2016 October Surprise would come from Putin: seeing an opportunity both to take advantage of Obama’s eagerness to avoid confrontation and to push American public opinion against the Democrats and toward Trump.
Putin has consistently surprised his Western counterparts by thinking out of the box, breaking the rules, and making moves to which they have no effective counter. Anything that encourages him to think that Obama can be pushed and that America is irresolute and confused is dangerous.