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Take Your Eye Off the Ball

In one respect, the World Cup match between England and the United States is a study in symbolism. For Americans, it symbolizes, first, the fact of our exceptionalism. Unlike the rest of the world, we just don’t care very much about soccer.

The fact that the U.S.’s first match is against England has brought out the second bit of symbolism: the U.S. media’s belief that England is the one nation against which American patriotism may legitimately be directed.

The sporting media, like Hollywood, wants its villains to be English. If the U.S.’s first match was against Mexico, you can be sure that everyone would be walking on eggshells of politically correct hemispheric brotherhood. But with England on the field, it’s open season, and time to wave the flag.

ESPN, for example, has been running ads attacking England’s tabloid newspaper The Sun for mocking U.S. soccer skills, and quoting eloquently from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, one of the greatest pieces of American patriotic literature ever written. George Washington found it so inspiring that he ordered it to be read to the troops at Valley Forge. The opening is famous still: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

This is good 1776 stuff. But the amusing thing about this is how far removed it is from reality. Every survey shows that Britain ranks right behind Canada as the country that Americans like and trust the most. There is just no meaningful Anglophobia left in this country. That is why the U.S. media finds the English such appealing villains: because the Left distrusts American patriotism, it dares summon it up only when nothing much is at stake.

But unfortunately, off the field and away from the World Cup, a lot is at stake. Unbelievably, President Obama has decided that his best bet is to ‘reset’ relations with our enemies and to kick our friends in the shins. And since Britain is our best friend, the British have come in for the most kicking.

At first, it was a matter of symbolism, though in diplomacy, symbols become substance. Obama threw a bust of Winston Churchill – not just a great British Prime Minister, but the first honorary American citizen – out of the Oval Office. When former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited in 2009, the State Department said there was “nothing special about Britain.” As a present, Obama gave Brown, who is partially blind, DVDs that did not work in Britain for him to enjoy watching.

In recent days, the insults – careless and otherwise – have kept on coming. But they’ve also escalated, from random kicks to serious, red-card worthy fouls. Last week, the administration sent the Queen a birthday message: a nice touch, except they got the date wrong. This week, the United States joined with the rest of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in a unanimous voice vote calling on Britain to negotiate with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

The sovereignty of the Islands isn’t in question. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain fought and won a war in 1982 to defend the Islands from an Argentine invasion. And the islanders themselves are British, and have voted to remain a British territory. Yet not only did the U.S. back the demand for negotiations, it approved a resolution that described the Falklands as the “Malvinas Islands.”
That is the Argentine name for the territories, and by using it, the U.S. was not just calling for negotiations, but tacitly declaring it was siding with Argentina. When the State Department used it in a press conference, it drew an official protest from Britain. Instead of backing the OAS resolution, the U.S. should have clearly rejected it as an undemocratic violation of British sovereignty, and as the product of Argentine domestic politics, where an unpopular government that has badly mismanaged the economy is desperately looking for a foreign scapegoat.
But of course this administration did not such thing. Indeed, as the U.S. economy fails to recover in spite of its vaunted stimulus packages, this administration is looking for foreign scapegoats of its own. And it is finding one in “British Petroleum.” That is not even the company’s proper name: it became, simply, “BP” in 1998. But that has not stopped the administration from using it, and BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward, as a whipping boy.

In recent days, the British have begun to cry foul: Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, says he is tired of the “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.” John Napier, chairman of a leading British insurance firm, wrote to Obama, accusing him of “double standards” in his “somewhat prejudicial and personal” criticisms of BP and its chief executive. George Osborne, the head of Britain’s Treasury, has stated that everyone – including Obama – needs to “remember the economic value BP brings to people in Britain and America.”
There is no need to defend BP: it is liable for the costs of the clean-up, and if it has been negligent, that should and will be exposed. But there is also no reason to attack it: that achieves nothing. The administration’s rhetoric has nothing to do with stopping the spill, or saving Louisiana’s marshes: It’s about protecting it from the anger of the American people by blaming a big, foreign, energy company. The fact that this company employs tens of thousands of Americans, pays millions in U.S. taxes, and provides the oil that helps keep our cars moving evidently doesn’t matter.

This administration doesn’t care about the Anglo-American special relationship, which is why it’s so quick with the insults and so eager to play the card of American nationalism. It thinks nothing much is at stake. But the relationship between our countries isn’t just about symbols. It’s a matter of substance.

So enjoy the U.S.-England match on Saturday. Still, it’s just a game. The real action between the U.S. and England is going on off the field. And right now, it’s a match we’re all losing.

Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations at the Heritage Foundation in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.