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Obama, British leader discuss strain in nations' ties

By Scott Wilson and Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 27, 2010; A04

TORONTO -- President Obama and the new British prime minister, David Cameron, grabbed some time alone here Saturday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. It was their first private meeting since Cameron became prime minister last month, and they had a lot to talk about, not least a "special relationship" burdened by the BP oil spill and the war in Afghanistan.

The men do not know each other well. But each is facing intense public pressure at home over the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a war in Afghanistan in which command of NATO forces has just undergone dramatic change.

In an unusual show of camaraderie before their official meeting, Obama invited Cameron to join him aboard Marine One for the ride from the Muskoka region, where the Group of Eight had concluded its session, to the G-20 summit in Toronto.

Obama then used remarks after their talk to set the tone for the latest incarnation of the relationship between the long-time allies and to challenge the contention by commentators on both sides of the Atlantic that it is not particularly special any more.

"On foreign policy issues, the United States and the United Kingdom are not only aligned in theory, but aligned in fact," Obama said. "We see the world in a similar way."

The positive review belied evidence of the leaders' differences heading over the U.S. response to the oil spill, the best way to sustain the global economic recovery and their shared commitment to the Afghan war.

On Friday, Cameron announced his intention to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan, where they make up the second-largest national contingent, within five years.

While that timeline does not necessarily conflict with Obama's, it magnified the perception that the mission is unraveling. It came just two days after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's abrupt dismissal for the disdainful comments he and his staff made in a magazine article about the civilian leadership.

Obama called Cameron hours after he relieved McChrystal of his command, and the two have spoken a number of times by phone in recent weeks as concerns have mounted over the oil spill. After their discussions here, Obama said he and Cameron agree that "we have the right strategy to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up capacity for the next several months and years."

"This period that we're in right now is going to be critical both on the political front and the military front," Obama said.

Before Saturday's meeting, the British news media had urged Cameron to take a sterner tone with Obama, whom they view as unfairly pillorying, for political purposes, a company important to millions of British pensioners.

In a recent column in the Daily Mail, Amanda Platell, a former aide to now-British Foreign Secretary William Hague, wrote that "the way Tony Hayward has been vilified is a joke," referring to the BP chief executive who infamously noted that no one wanted the spill to end sooner than he did because he "want[ed his] life back."

"If you don't recognize the special relationship is special to you, and if you don't know loyalty goes both ways and you've never had a better friend than Britain, then send our 10,000 troops home from Helmand immediately," Platell wrote, referring to a region of southern Afghanistan where British and American forces are fighting the Taliban.

But the strain between the governments started long before the oil spill. In supporting President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, Britain's prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, created the perception that his country was America's "poodle." The ongoing British inquiry into the Iraq war has kept that perception alive, making it harder for Blair's successors to fully embrace American policy.

Obama, too, came into office with a foreign policy philosophy that sought to treat all countries equally under a shared set of international "rights and responsibilities." The approach has left not only the British among U.S. allies feeling less special than they once did.

Earlier this year, the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee issued a report concluding that the special relationship has lost its relevance.

David Manning, a former British ambassador to Washington, told the committee that Obama "comes with a very different perspective. He is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia and who had a Kenyan father."

"The sentimental reflexes, if you like, are not there," Manning said. "If you want President Obama's attention at the moment, particularly when the agenda is so cluttered, it has to be relevant."

The polling firm YouGov reported this month that 64 percent of people in Britain think Obama's handling of the BP spill has weakened the countries' ties.

The relationship has always "been much more special to England than America," wrote Gary Younge, an influential writer for the Guardian. "It is special so far as Britain can help America advance its interests."

The Obama-Cameron meeting Saturday began what Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador to Washington, described as an "intensive period of visits" by British development, energy and defense officials to Washington to shore up Britain's relationship with the administration. Cameron has his first official White House visit scheduled for July 20.

"We've already, I think, have established a strong working relationship," Obama said. "And we're confident that the special relationship is only going to get stronger in the months and years to come."

Staff researcher Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London contributed to this report.

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