The President was supposed to arrive for his two-day state visit to the U.K. on the morning of May 24. Instead, a plume of volcanic ash from Iceland forced a change of plan that saw POTUS curtail his trip to his ancestral homeland, Ireland, and head for London before Air Force One could be grounded. As officials scrambled to find him a suitable bed for the night (nobody, not even the U.S. President, turns up at Buckingham Palace a day early), the broadcaster ITV and polling organization ComRes released an opinion poll reflecting the warmth of the welcome that awaited: 70% of Brits think he’s doing a better job than his predecessor and 60% think he’s a good President.
One Brit in particular was keen to express his personal approval. Prime Minister David Cameron invited 11 London-based correspondents for U.S. news organizations to 10 Downing Street for drinks and discussion of the special relationship™ on May 23, ahead of the presidential arrival. Most of the discussion—inevitably the juiciest 40 minutes—was conducted off-the-record, but Cameron opened proceedings with brief remarks that echoed the national enthusiasm for Barack Obama:
I very much admire the President and the way he does his work, the way he is extremely thoughtful—it is a mixture of being extremely courageous as we saw with Osama bin Laden, but also very thoughtful and measured and serious about making sure we get our response to these extraordinary events in North Africa and the Arab world right.
Cameron insists that any personal compatibility is matched by a near-perfect fit on matters of policy. British newspapers have carried reports highlighting possible areas of disagreement—Washington was said to be concerned about the speed of Britain’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan; London was said to be aggrieved that the U.S. had not increased its commitment to the military action in Libya. Not so, said Cameron, sipping a glass of white wine in the Margaret Thatcher room, so named because a stern portrait of the iron lady stares down at her successors from a lofty position above the mantlepiece. “On all the key issues in our world at the moment, there is an incredible alignment of views and understanding and interest between Britain and America,” he said. (See: Top 10 Across the Pond Duos.)
The sentiment was reinforced by U.K. Foreign Secretary and U.S. Secretary of State at a
love in press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office an hour later. Hillary Clinton deployed not only the obligatory adjective to Anglo-American relations (“special”), but also described the transatlantic bond as “indispensable” and “unique.” William Hague, asked by a journalist about areas of possible dissent between the two countries, joked that any fissures were so insignificant that the media needed his help to identify them.
That’s not so far from the truth. Britain not only agrees with Obama’s position on a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace based on 1967 borders with land swaps, but believes it and other European governments deserve some credit for pushing the policy. The U.K. and the U.S. will show a united front on Libya (progress is being made, they’ll say; time is on NATO’s side and running against Gaddafi) and the search for a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan. Both governments have extolled the Arab spring and excoriated some of the region’s dictators, while treading more softly in confronting the tyrannies in “friendly” nations such as Bahrain. Bilateral talks on what to do about Syria, Yemen and Iran are unlikely to throw any surprise spanners into the smooth running of the visit. (Read: Barack and Michelle in Windsorland.)
Moreover the death of Osama bin Laden has given the U.K. a fresh opportunity to show the U.S. just how useful it can be. The Iraq war fatally undermined Britain’s historic role as a bridge between Washington and the rest of Europe, but with U.S.-Pakistani relations in the deep freeze, London could prove a helpful go-between with Islamabad. Meanwhile, in another show of togetherness, Obama and Cameron are unveiling a new joint national security strategy body, headed by their respective national security advisers Tom Donilon and Peter Ricketts, to spot, analyze and plan for emerging threats from terrorism and rogue states.
British officials say they will not greet Obama with a shopping list of additional requests and do not expect him to arrive with a sheaf of demands either. Without entertaining rows to report, the British press are likely to indulge in one of their favorite games: looking for signs that the special relationship isn’t really that special. The President, faultlessly cordial but rarely effusive, could easily provide fuel for such speculation, by giving a dud present, failing to emote, deploying the S-word too sparingly in his joint press conference with Cameron on the morning of May 25 or his keynote speech at Westminster later in the day.
That would sting, because no matter how often Cameron and his colleagues seek to distance themselves from the cloying—and ultimately damaging—devotion Tony Blair showed to two White House incumbents, they continue to crave as close a connection as possible with the U.S. and its President, embattled at home but beloved in Europe. And if Iceland’s unruly volcano should continue to spew out ash and trap Obama in London beyond May 26, when he’s due to travel to the G-8 summit in France, he won’t outstay his London welcome. (See: Photos of British soldiers on duty in Afghanistan.)