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Could Britain's three-way end the ??special relationship'?

Saturday, April 24, 2010; A12

FOR MOST of the past year, Britain's upcoming election looked to be a familiar battle between Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor Party and the Conservatives under David Cameron. Once far behind, Mr. Brown seemed to be making a modest comeback when, in the past two weeks, the campaign was shaken by the introduction of an American import: the televised candidates' debate. The beneficiary has been neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Cameron, but Nicholas Clegg, the leader of Britain's perennially also-ran Liberal Democratic Party. Judged the winner of the debates held this far, Mr. Clegg has suddenly become a contender -- and the election is looking as if it could significantly shift Britain's course.

At this point it looks unlikely that Mr. Clegg's party will win the May 6 election and form the next government, if only because of the way Britain's voting system works. But it could force the first "hung parliament" since 1974, in which no party has a majority. That could mean messy negotiations over a coalition government, or a weak minority government. Either way Britain could have difficulty forging policies to emerge from the economic crisis or making decisions about its foreign and defense policies. The country is at something of a crossroads: A strategic defense review after the election could decide whether it continues to act as a close partner of the United States in military operations abroad or retreats to a lesser role.

Mr. Clegg's stance on those issues could make some in Washington nervous. In a speech this week he called for a shakeup in relations between the United States and the United Kingdom and described as "embarrassing the way Conservative and Labor politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about the special relationship." He added that there were "profound differences" between the two countries and argued that the Obama administration had already written off the idea that Britain was a special ally. "If they are moving on, why on earth don't we?" he said.

Intentionally or not, Mr. Obama has offered support for Mr. Clegg's argument: His relatively chilly relationship with Mr. Brown, including several perceived snubs, has been a persistent theme of British news coverage. Yet the United States can hardly afford a weaker or less friendly Britain at a time when it is still fighting two wars and when diplomacy with states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria is failing. Other longtime American allies, from Brazil to Turkey, have begun opposing the Obama administration on Iran and other issues. Though the next British government is unlikely to follow their course, Mr. Obama would be wise to reaffirm the "special relationship."

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