New British secretary and Clinton: A simpatico vibe in first meeting

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

Their clothes were a perfectly matched set. He wore a dark suit and baby-blue tie; she wore a baby-pink pantsuit.

Their rhetoric matched as well. The "special relationship" endures.

William Hague, the new British foreign secretary, called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday just days after his country's new Conservative-led coalition government took power. The British are an essential ally in virtually every American project overseas -- such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the drive for sanctions against Iran -- and so both sides were eager to take stock of each other.

And while ousted prime minister Gordon Brown never seemed to find his footing with President Obama, Hague's predecessor, David Miliband, got along famously with Clinton, making a good first impression at the State Department even more important for the new government.

Hague, once the Conservative Party's leader before being replaced by the younger David Cameron, was unstinting in his praise for a woman who turned to foreign policy after losing her party's nomination to a younger man.

"I'm aware, coming into this job, that the challenges of foreign policy are uniquely tricky, and that is why I've always had such huge admiration for Secretary Clinton," he told reporters, calling her "an inspiring example to other foreign ministers and would-be foreign ministers around the world, and I pay tribute to her for that."

Clinton flashed a wry smile.

Within British political circles, a constant topic of discussion is the relevance of the singular transatlantic tie that has endured since World War II. Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, was ridiculed as a "poodle" for his fervent support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But Obama seemed to elevate the concept this week, declaring after Cameron became prime minister that the United States and Britain have an "extraordinary special relationship."

Hague was eager to embrace Obama's language.

"We're very happy to accept that description and to agree with that description," he told reporters. "The United States is without doubt the most important ally of the United Kingdom. . . . It's not a backward-looking or nostalgic relationship. It is one looking to the future."

Hague stressed that, notwithstanding the new -- and for Britain, unusual -- coalition government, his country's main policies remain unchanged. Speaking of the push to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, Hague was emphatic. "I'm not looking for differences with previous British administrations," he said. "We supported the efforts of the outgoing Labor government, working with the United States on this subject."

Clinton took a tough line on Iran at the news conference. "We are making progress every day" on a new U.N. sanctions resolution, she said. She came close to ridiculing Brazilian President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva's plan to try to strike a deal in Tehran this weekend, saying an exchange between Lula and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday "illustrated the hill that the Brazilians are attempting to climb."

Medvedev, saying he was being an optimist, gave Lula only a 30 percent chance of success. Lula replied that he "would give 9.9" on a scale of 1 to 10. Clinton didn't give odds, but she clearly thought they were nonexistent.

"I have told my counterparts in many capitals around the world that I believe that we will not get any serious response out of the Iranians until after the Security Council acts," she said.

Hague nodded repeatedly as Clinton spoke. He was also given a quick lesson in diplomacy with the United States, which is that nearly every question is directed to the secretary of state.

"Thank you very much," Clinton said, ending the session with reporters.

"Thank you very much, indeed," Hague echoed.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company