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Obama greeted warmly in London, U.S.-British differences notwithstanding

As President Obama makes an official state visit with the queen, his disagreements with Prime Minister David Cameron – however slight – are certain to come up in days ahead. The two leaders, however, publish a joint letter affirming that their relationship is not only 'special,' but 'essential.'

May 25, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama reviews an honor guard at Buckingham Palace after arriving for a state visit, the second by a U.S. president.
President Obama reviews an honor guard at Buckingham Palace after arriving… (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )

Reporting from London — The pomp is the same, but the circumstance is different.

President Obama's state visit to Britain, which kicked into high gear Tuesday, is only the second by an American leader during the 59-year reign of his host, Queen Elizabeth II. The first took place in 2003, when she received President George W. Bush at Buckingham Palace.

Back then, thousands of angry protesters greeted Bush and jeered at his close relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair, because of their united stand over the invasion of Iraq.

Now the scenario is nearly the opposite. The British public remains enthusiastic about Obama, perhaps more than its American counterpart. But his relationship with Prime Minister David Cameron is less close than Bush and Blair's, with room for disagreement, if slight, on issues such as Libya and Afghanistan.

Those differences are certain to come up Wednesday during the two men's official talks at 10 Downing St. London has been annoyed at Washington's decision to leave the heavy lifting of the military campaign in Libya to European forces, and some U.S. officials are displeased with Britain's intention to pull out about 400 troops from Afghanistan by year's end.

In truth, those disagreements don't add up to any serious rift between the United States and its strongest ally. The U.S. and Britain remain each other's biggest economic investor and closest intelligence and military collaborator.

But that hasn't stopped the British establishment from indulging in its wonted pastime of obsessing over every oscillation of Anglo-American ties. Whenever a U.S. president drops in from across the pond, pundits and politicians here go into overdrive wondering if the "special relationship" is as special as it used to be.

On Tuesday, Obama and Cameron tried to preempt that speculation by publishing a joint letter in the Times of London. The letter called Anglo-American ties "rock solid" and even gave a new formulation to describe them: "Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship."

Whether that new adjective will catch on is doubtful. But the declaration should serve as an assurance to Britain that "all is safe, all is safe — your cousins are still there," said Michael Cox, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

The assurance is especially welcome now because of hand-wringing in Britain and other countries in the region that Obama has his sights set elsewhere, looking past traditional allies and partners to new ones and paying more attention to rising nations such as India and China.

"There's a lot of speculation about Obama being bored with Europe," said Cox, who thinks such worries are exaggerated.

When Obama removed a bust of Winston Churchill in a redecoration of the Oval Office, "the British media screeched 'snub' and reached for the smelling salts," one writer here put it.

Britain is particularly sensitive to any downgrade in its relations with the U.S., because the sun set on its empire long ago and its global influence now rests in part on how closely it can ride on American coattails.

Commentators in Britain are therefore prone to examining the tiniest of details in the dynamics between the two countries, ready to find cause for alarm in even the quality of gifts their leaders exchange.

When Obama presented Cameron's predecessor, Gordon Brown, with a stack of DVDs of American classic movies two years ago, the British chattering classes rose up as one against what they considered a terrible Yankee slight. (Granted, Brown's gift to Obama was classier: a penholder fashioned out of the wood of a 19th century warship called HMS President.)

At the same time, despite being the junior partner in the relationship, the British government is desperate not to appear too needy and "slavish" in craving Washington's approval.

"We should spend most of our time talking about what we can achieve together," Cameron said in a meeting with a small group of American news organizations this week, including The Times.

The attempt to reemphasize the uniqueness of the U.S.-British connection may stem partly from the fact that Obama and Cameron's relationship lacks some of the personal chemistry of previous pairings.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sometimes greeted each other with a kiss. The Bush and Blair duo occasionally smacked of a man-crush, with Bush once pointing out that the two of them used the same brand of toothpaste. (Blair blushed.)

Cameron has said that he wants to have a businesslike, practical and cordial relationship with Obama, whom he praised as "thoughtful and measured" in his approach to policy. The two men speak by telephone every couple of weeks.

But even Cameron wants to make sure everything goes smoothly for his illustrious guest's visit. On Wednesday, the prime minister and his wife, Samantha, will host a barbecue for the president, the first lady and a gathering of decorated American and British soldiers.

In his interview with U.S. reporters, Cameron confessed to having already held a practice run for what his daughter has dubbed the "Obama-cue." The Guardian newspaper Tuesday offered cooking, dress and conversational tips for what is, after all, a quintessentially American activity.

"It is a daring act for the Camerons to invite the Obamas to a barbecue at Downing Street," the newspaper wrote. "The steaks are high."

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