A lousy giver too

In connection with his visit to Washington this week British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave President Obama an interesting set of gifts. The Daily Mail reports:

Mr Brown’s gifts included an ornamental desk pen holder made from the oak timbers of Victorian anti-slaver HMS Gannet, once named HMS President.

Mr Obama was so delighted he has already put it in pride of place in the Oval Office on the Resolute desk which was carved from timbers of Gannet’s sister ship, HMS Resolute.

Another treasure given to the U.S. President was the framed commission for HMS Resolute, a vessel that came to symbolise Anglo-US peace when it was saved from ice packs by Americans and given to Queen Victoria.

Finally, Mr Brown gave a first edition set of the seven-volume classic biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert.

Elaborating on the history of HMS Gannet, Ted Bromund explains:

The ironies here are wonderful, though Obama doesn’t seem likely to appreciate them. Of course, the reference to the anti-slavery mission is a nod to Obama’s fascination, fervent but not deep, with Abraham Lincoln.

But HMS Gannet was not, as a casual reader might guess, employed against the trade of slaves from Africa to the New World, and since it was built in 1878, it has nothing to do with Lincoln or slavery in the United States. It sailed the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, patrolling against Islamist slavers. In the Red Sea, the Africans it saved would have come, among other places, from Kenya. Obama has made mention of his grandfather’s antipathy to Britain, stemming from his experiences in colonial Kenya. It is quite possible that grandfather’s ancestors would, had it not been for the Royal Navy, have been carried away to slavery in Arabia.

The British campaign against the slave trade is instructive for another, more important, reason. By volume of business, it was the Foreign Office’s most important concern for much of the 19th century. In the courts of Europe and the New World, Britain sought to negotiate effective treaties against the trade. But Britain did not restrict itself to diplomacy. Far too often, treaties were negotiated and then not enforced. Britain’s first response to this was usually to negotiate again, but its patience was not infinite

Here Bromund quotes an account of one of the ship’s engagements:

[In June 1850], British warships entered Brazilian ports to flush out vessels being fitted for the slave trade. The subsequent burning and scuttling of suspected slave ships, and exchanges with coastal batteries, resulted in a predictable outcry in Brazil, including a call for the government to consider war with Britain. Wiser counsels prevailed, and in the summer of 1850 new legislation placed a comprehensive ban on the importation of slaves and measures for the seizure of vessels fitted for the trade. Unlike previous acts, these provisions were rigorously enforced and within twelve months the Brazilian slave trade was effectively extinct.

What might President Obama learn from this history? Bromund draws the lesson:

In short, Britain’s campaign against the slave trade combined diplomacy and unilateral force in a highly effective and sustained way. Diplomacy provided legitimacy, but the British were not willing to be bound by treaties that did not bind the other side: if they felt they were being made fools of, they acted. Negotiations were meant to achieve a distinct aim: they were a means of policy, not an end in itself.

Bromund comments:

How unlike the current administration, which congratulates Hugo Chávez on winning his “dictator for life” referendum, has responded with “utter passivity” to a series of Russian, Pakistani, and Iranian provocations, and which cannot wait to stab Eastern Europe in the back by selling them out on missile defense. Maybe that pen holder is Brown’s way of encouraging Obama to show a little of the old-fashioned British spirit, and to recognize that endless negotiations not backed by steel are a mistake if they come at the cost of the nation’s values and honor.

In return, President Obama gave Prime Minister Brown a 25-DVD box set of classic American films. Prime Minister Brown obviously sees the gift as something of an indignity. The Daily Mail reports that “No 10 had tried to keep the present a secret, refusing to answer reporters who asked what President Obama had given to mark the reaffirmation of the special relationship.” Compared to the gifts brought for Obama by Brown, the DVDs are an embarrassment. Couldn’t Obama at least have thrown in an an autographed copy of The Audacity of Hope?

Ed Morrissey adds to the derision that has been heaped on Obama’s gift (and links to others with related thoughts as well). Mark Hemingway comments that “he’s just not that into the special relationship” and wonders whether the president gave Brown DVDs that are compatible with British players.

Perhaps Obama can yet redeem himself. Scott Ott reports that Obama may have something in mind for Queen Elizabeth. According to Ott, “White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has also put a lot of thought into what gift to present to Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace.” Drawing on his sources among “White House insiders,” Ott reports that “Mr. Obama has narrowed it down to a CD box set, Queen: The Crown Jewels, or a queen-sized mattress.”

UPDATE: The Telegraph’s Iain Martin adds: “A box of 25 DVDS including ET, the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars? Oh, give me strength. We do have television and DVD stores on this side of the Atlantic. Even Gordon Brown will have seen those films too often already.”

MORE: Reader Ken Gage observes: “Going back to the topic of is he just that stupid or is he doing it on purpose, consider the fact that Gordon Brown is blind in one eye and has some visual deterioration in the other (how much is unclear). A calculated insult could not have been more on-target.” Jules Crittenden asks whether Obama is “wicked, childish or dim.”

To comment on this post, go here.


Books to read from Power Line