Obama in Westminster Hall seals 'alliance of values'
[LONDON] "I am told that the last three speakers here have been the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela," President Obama began his speech at Westminster Hall, "which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke".
President Obama is the first ever US President to address both Houses of Parliament -- and only the fourth foreign leader (the others were Pope Benedict XVI in September last year, Nelson Mandela in 1996 and Charles de Gaulle in 1960) to do so -- in this most historic of parliamentary places, site of the executions of kings and martyrs.
The address never quite reached the oratorial skies of some of his great speeches, but was warm, beautifully delivered, and intended to reinforce and recast the "special relationship" between the US and UK as founded less on historic sentiment as much as shared values.
Despite "a small scrape over tea and taxes" and the burning of the White House during the War of 1812, Obama joked, "fortunately it's been smooth sailing ever since."
Most of the speech was taken up with enumerating those values, and seeing them as crucial for guiding the outcome of the Arab spring. It was the United States and the United Kingdom, and our democratic allies, he said, "that shaped a world in which new nations could emerge and individuals could thrive."
Being British and American, he said, was about "believing in a certain set of ideals -- the rights of individuals and the rule of law"; the speech was peppered with other examples: believing that "everyone is endowed by our Creator with certain rights that cannot be denied"; tolerance; self-determination; dignity.
Perhaps the most interesting -- and daring -- part of the speech was about immigration and assimilation. In the US and the UK, he said, "it is possible for people to be united by their ideals, rather than divided by their differences" and "possible for hearts to change and hatreds to pass". This assimilation through acquiring shared values made it meant, he said, that immigrants "can pledge allegiance to our flag and call themselves American"; "in Britain, they can sing 'God save our Queen' like any other citizen."
That led to the line that caused the 1,000-strong audience of MPs and peers to applaud. It was this openness, he said, that enabled "this grandson of a Kenyan cook who served in British army to stand before you as President of the United States."
Earlier, at a press conference, the British prime minister and the US president agreed to turn up the heat on Gadaffi. "We will continue those operations until Gaddafi's attacks on civilians cease," Obama said. "Time is working against Gaddafi and he must step down from power and leave Libya to the Libyan people."
The commentators agree that the last 48 hours of pomp and pageantry have been a great success, solidifying a relationship which it is in the interests of both nations to continue to promote, not just in their own interests, but those of the world.
But the so-called "special relationship" has been recast here as an "essential relationship" -- a pragmatic alliance of strategic interests as well as (you guessed it) shared values.
What has been very striking, however, is the esteem which President Obama commands here. Following his speech at Westminster Hall, the MPs and the Lords did their best not to appear undignified in their anxiety to press his flesh, as the President made his way slowly through them, exchanging smiles and jokes.
POTUS, in short, has wowed and wooed.