May 22, 2011


[Post-bin Laden, London was branded a major extremist recruiting ground in leaked American government documents. It is claimed that at least 35 Guantanamo terrorists were radicalised in London mosques, more than any other Western country. Obama will surely take Cameron to task over “Londonistan”, and the Prime Minister will have to show he is meeting the threat head-on.]


When President Obama’s state visit to Britain was announced last February it was seen as little more than a lavish ceremonial event. For Obama the lure was clear. Staying at Buckingham Palace in the wake of the royal wedding would play well with the folks back home, who were glued to the build-up to William and Kate’s big day, as well as providing the perfect prestigious backdrop to the launch of his campaign for a second four years in the White House. Meanwhile, David Cameron had a golden chance to build his credentials as an international statesman. And for both men, there was a solid need to rebuild Anglo-American relations, which suffered near-collapse under Gordon Brown, who was treated with open contempt by the United States in the dying days of his premiership.

But the two leaders now meet at a time of international crisis. As well as presenting the right image, officials say there will be real, substantive issues on the table when Obama meets Cameron after Air Force One touches down in London next Tuesday.

Doubtless, the war with Libya will top the agenda. The United States was, at best, lukewarm about the Libyan military intervention when it was conceived three months ago and is increasingly worried that the war may drag on aimlessly into next year’s presidential campaign.

Afghanistan – where Britain has been America’s strongest coalition partner – is less of a source of tension. Obama and Cameron share the aim of quitting this theatre of war as soon as possible, and by 2015 at the latest. Nevertheless, Cameron’s unilateral decision to cut British troop numbers by 450 – just under five per cent of the 10,000 based in southern Afghanistan – has enraged the US military, though less so the White House.

Officials are highlighting the mounting power and independence of Russia as a third cause of discussion at next week’s bilateral meeting. They say there is mounting concern that ex-president Vladimir Putin will return to fight the upcoming presidential elections on a strongly anti-Western and nationalist platform.

More politically sensitive, however, is the economic crisis, where there are dangerous potential tensions between the Cameron and Obama administrations. The problem chiefly concerns George Osborne, who is emerging as a cult hero in parts of the Republican Right. Republicans like to contrast Obama’s initial lax fiscal response to the economic recession, followed by his recent humiliating retreat, with Osborne’s tough-minded cost-cutting.

This has caused irritation in senior Democratic circles, an irritation that has been stimulated by a visit by George Osborne’s former chief of staff and close ally Matthew Hancock – now a Tory MP – to Washington last month.

Hancock’s arrival coincided with the US budget stand-off, as the Obama White House and Congress hammered out a compromise on cuts, as ratings agencies warned of a possible downgrading in US public debt. Hancock received a hero’s welcome in Republican circles, where he was seen as a personal emissary from the British Chancellor.

Hancock, it should be stressed, also met Democratic politicians and administration figures, while sources insist that relations between US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and George Osborne are excellent. Nevertheless, in America there are long memories of Conservative Party interference in Democratic presidential campaigns – John Major was accused of conspiring to keep Bill Clinton out of the White House. Furthermore, the Obama circle are well aware that Tory links with the Republicans stretch deep into the Coalition government – Defence Secretary Liam Fox, Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Education Secretary Michael Gove, to name but three, are all close to the “Grand Old Party”. Osborne will need to tread carefully if his Republican links are not to cause even more resentment in the White House.

The immediate economic decision for President and Prime Minister concerns the replacement for Dominique Strauss-Kahn as chief of the International Monetary Fund. Cameron will want to block any possibility that the ex-prime minister Gordon Brown might get the job. Sources say that he will face little difficulty. Obama was so troubled by Brown’s erratic conduct as Prime Minister that the White House even speculated that Britain could not be relied on as an ally.

Relations between Obama and Cameron are stronger than is generally thought. There is a warmth and mutual respect between the two men – a factor that played a role in Obama’s agreeing to take part in only the second state visit by a US president to Britain in the reign of the Queen.

The first took place in November 2003, in the early months of the Iraq war, when relations between George W Bush and then prime minister, Tony Blair, were uncomfortably close. It is fair to say that the slavish relationship between Britain and America, which was the most notable feature of the Blair years, has been moderated. But it is also true that shortly after Cameron entered Downing Street 12 months ago, Obama phoned him to say that the United States had “no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom”.

But these warm words should not be read as a sign that the so-called “special relationship” has returned to the heights of the Bush-Blair years. It needs to be remembered that the President has used similar terminology for other countries too – for instance, when the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited Washington earlier this year, Obama told him: “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.” One wonders whether this sentiment will be reciprocated by the French after the sight of Dominique Strauss Kahn in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison.

Both Cameron and Obama have changed since their first meeting in 2008, when they were both electoral hopefuls. But the most dramatic transformation since has undoubtedly been in Obama, thanks to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. The bookish, almost professorial President was, in the eyes of the American people, “blooded” by the al-Qaeda leader’s killing – and his approval ratings soared. Obama will be keen to keep his “bin Laden bounce” – and it is almost impossible to imagine that he and Mr Cameron will not exchange words about the future of the battle against Islamic extremism.

Post-bin Laden, London was branded a major extremist recruiting ground in leaked American government documents. It is claimed that at least 35 Guantanamo terrorists were radicalised in London mosques, more than any other Western country. Obama will surely take Cameron to task over “Londonistan”, and the Prime Minister will have to show he is meeting the threat head-on.

As well as this, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary William Hague have stressed that Britain is prepared to act independently of the United States. Behind the scenes, for example, Britain has been repeatedly making the case for Obama to put pressure on Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss terms for a peace settlement with the Palestinians – a subject that will form the basis for talks between Hague and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

But the most potent indication of the new style of our special relationship concerns Libya. From the start, Obama was unenthusiastic about intervention in favour of the Libyan rebels, while his then Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, was actively opposed, arguing that there were major dangers in any Libyan involvement, and that in any case Libya held only a peripheral importance.

It was Cameron and Sarkozy who persuaded the American President to change his mind, with one insider saying that the warm personal relationship between Cameron and Obama played a key role in winning over the initially sceptical Americans. “The White House sees Libya as very much Cameron’s war,” one source tells me.

So the President will be asking some awkward questions this week. He will want to know how Britain and France now define their aims for this war and how they believe the conflict will end. I am told the President will also question the legality of the apparent policy of targeted assassination against Gaddafi.

The spotlight is on Cameron. For if he cannot give plausible answers to these difficult questions, his – and Britain’s – credibility in the Obama White House will be damaged. After the damage caused across the Atlantic by the turbulent Brown years, this is one outcome David Cameron will be eager to avoid. 

@ The Telegraph