The White House praised British Prime Minister David Cameron as a “partner and ally” on Friday, seeking to extinguish a diplomatic flap after comments by President Barack Obama on the 2011 Libya intervention were seen as a public rebuke.
Obama was also critical of former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy when discussing the two European allies’ roles in Libya during an interview with The Atlantic magazine.
In the article published on Thursday, Obama said Cameron became “distracted” and Sarkozy wanted to promote his country amid the fall of Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.
British daily The Independent on Friday slammed Obama’s comments as “an unprecedented attack on a British leader by a serving US president,” while The Times called the criticism “extraordinary.”
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said Obama “values deeply the special relationship between the United States and our allies in the UK.”
Earnest called Cameron “a particularly effective interlocutor” and a “partner and ally.”
He noted that the leaders have an “effective working relationship” allowing the two countries to collaborate on security issues including the fight against the Islamic State group.
In the extensive interview with The Atlantic, Obama discussed the British and French-led bombing campaign that led to the fall of Kadhafi’s regime.
Obama said when he considered what went wrong in Libya, “there’s room for criticism because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
Cameron stopped paying attention soon after the military operation, he said, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.”
Since Kadhafi’s downfall, Libya has descended into near-anarchy, ruled by rival militias vying for power while the Islamic State group grows in influence.
Earnest said it was not the first time Obama mentioned shortcomings in the international community’s response to Libya, with the US bearing responsibility as well.
He added: “More broadly, the argument the president is making (in the Atlantic piece) is that the US cannot and should not put ourselves in a position to be the world policeman.”
US ambassador to Britain Matthew Barzun tweeted that relations between the two countries remained “special,” a term that Britain has been desperate to re-emphasize since Winston Churchill coined it 70 years ago.
“Our relationship is essential. It is special. True yesterday, true today and will be true tomorrow,” he wrote.
‘Storm in teacup’
A spokesperson for Cameron told AFP: “We agree that there are still many difficult challenges in Libya.
“But as the prime minister has said many times before, coming to the aid of innocent civilians who were being tortured and killed by their leader was the right thing to do.”
The spokesman said Britain supported peace efforts in Libya, “but ultimately a positive outcome for Libya is not just up to the international community.
“This process needs to be led by the Libyan people.”
Britain’s former ambassador to Washington Christopher Meyer played down the spat, saying on Twitter that it was a “storm in a diplomatic teacup.”
A British government spokeswoman later stressed there was “a regular dialogue between the White House and the prime minister,” that the relationship remained “special and central” and that it would take lessons from the criticisms.
Obama was also critical of France, saying that during the bombing campaign Sarkozy wanted to “trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the operation.
Earnest did not mention Sarkozy in his remarks on Friday.
Both Cameron and Sarkozy faced strong criticism domestically for the chaos that ensued in Libya following the NATO-led military intervention.