Under a bright noon sun in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron traded compliments on each other’s leadership, and made it clear they were buddies. There was no “Mr. President” and “Mr. Prime Minister,” it was Barack and David, and it was a love-in with the two men eager to show they get along splendidly, and that they are on the same page when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and even the economy.
Obama has been critical of Europe’s austerity program as too much, too soon, but he sounded a different note with Cameron standing there, stressing that the two countries’ objectives are the same. Cameron agreed, saying they shared the goals of growth and low deficits, they just had different starting points.
The purpose of the press conference was to convey a seamless accord on tough issues, and to underscore that they are working hard at developing the kind of personal chemistry that gets leaders through tough times. Much was made in the media of Obama taking the prime minister to a basketball game. The president explained that it was to reciprocate for a table tennis match Cameron arranged for him during his visit to the United Kingdom last year.
“We got thrashed,” Obama recalled, adding that he thought this time it would be better to just watch a sports event. Cameron, nimble on his feet and ready to return the jocularity, said, “America doesn’t like being on the losing side,” so he told the president he had arranged for a gift of table tennis to be sent to the White House “so you can practice.”
Obama and Cameron are aware of their place in history as the latest iteration of the special relationship that defines the U.S. and its closest ally. Obama said the leadership of the U.S. and U.K is “more important than ever,” and he thanked “David … for being such an outstanding ally, partner, and friend.”
Cameron returned the praise, saying some countries’ alliances are “more a matter of convenience, ours is a matter of conviction.” He said the relationship is “the strongest it has ever been,” that the two allies are “working as closely as at any point in our history.” That’s high praise given a history that goes back to FDR and Churchill, and on through Reagan and Thatcher, Bush and Blair.
On Afghanistan, both leaders are having their judgment questioned as public opinion sours on the war. Each sounded resolute in seeing the mission through to the planned exit date of 2014. Obama said in terms of the pace of withdrawal, he did not anticipate any sudden changes to the plan devised with NATO. When a British reporter noted the decline in support for the war, Obama said it was not surprising, “We’ve been there for 10 years, and people get weary. This is a hard slog.”
On Iran, it was Cameron who said, “Nothing is off the table,” an assertion that backed up Obama’s warning to Iran. “They should understand that the window for solving this situation diplomatically is shrinking,” he said, calling the recent resumption of talks Iran’s “best bet” to avoid potential military action. On Syria, both leaders stuck to their position that military intervention is not wise, and Obama repeated his oft-stated belief that “Assad will leave power—it’s not a question of if, but when.”
Asked whether the Syrian president should be treated as a war criminal, Cameron said that he has met with people returning from Syria, and that they are documenting their experiences. “International law has a long reach and long memory,” he said.
Amidst the challenges ahead, each singled out the other’s leadership on Libya, which both men view as a model for international engagement even as they recognize it is not readily duplicated elsewhere, and certainly not in Syria. Obama lauded Cameron’s role in seeing through the military intervention in Libya, and Cameron said it could not have been done without “the overwhelming support and force of the U.S. military.”
They will meet again in May in Chicago for a NATO summit, and that’s when the bond they forged over these few days in Washington will be put to the test. As the two largest contributors of forces to Afghanistan, they are the backbone of a coalition that is weary and fraying, and where the degree of trust that gets built up over time may not exist.