U.S. and U.K. Say 'Special Relationship' Is Still Going Strong

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Karla Adam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 12, 2009

LONDON, Oct. 11 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Britain over the weekend with a message about the two countries' alliance: It is special. Very special.

"It's a special relationship," Clinton said before meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Sunday. "I have a special personal relationship with the prime minister. And of course, I think it can't be said often enough, we have a special relationship between our countries."

Earlier in the day, she thanked Foreign Secretary David Miliband for "the opportunity to reaffirm the historic importance of the special relationship."

The Times of London rushed the big story to the top of its Web site: "Hillary Clinton Hails Special Relationship."

Clinton had a list of weighty topics to discuss during her trip, of course: Iran, Afghanistan, global warming. On her stop, part of a five-day European tour, she saw senior officials whom she and President Obama have talked with frequently. But Clinton seemed eager to soothe anxieties that have flared on this side of the pond about how, well, special Britain still is.

In the latest example of British hand-wringing, newspapers here reported last month that Brown had asked for talks with President Obama when the British leader was in the United States for the U.N. General Assembly and G20 meetings. He was turned down, the reports said, no less than five times.

Never mind that officials on both sides denied any hints of a snub. The flap came on the heels of an incident that did cause tension in transatlantic relations. Scottish authorities released a cancer-stricken Libyan jailed for the deadly 1988 Lockerbie bombing, with the apparent acquiescence of the British government. U.S. officials expressed outrage, but made clear that the bilateral relationship remained strong. Still, some British politicians and commentators saw a deep rift.

Andrew Porter wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the release "appeared to have left 'the special relationship' at its lowest ebb for nearly 20 years."

Not so, say U.S. officials.

A senior State Department official traveling with Clinton told reporters, "There's not a country in the world with which we have such regular and deep conversations on foreign policy." Just days ago, he noted, Obama had a lengthy videoconference with Brown. And the U.S. president did meet with Brown in New York, he said. (Although the British press said the encounter took place in the U.N. kitchen.)

The term "special relationship" was coined by Winston Churchill to refer to the cooperation between the allies. But over the years, British politicians have sometimes whipped themselves into a frenzy over perceived fluctuations in their country's ties to its former colony.

Focus on the relationship has been particularly intense since President Obama came to office. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had extremely warm relations with Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair.

But impressions of a cooler relationship between the current leaders crystallized when Brown first visited Obama at the White House in March. The British leader gave Obama a pen carved from the wood of a sister ship to the HMS Resolute, whose timbers were used for the Oval Office desk provided by Queen Victoria.

Obama gave Brown a boxed set of DVDs. Like "a pair of socks from an unfamiliar aunt at Christmas," declared the Daily Mail.

The senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the idea that the relationship had at all weakened.

"Every country is trying to measure their relationship with this administration," he said.

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