White House awaits British PM Cameron

20th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron makes his White House debut Tuesday, with President Barack Obama's aides insisting high political sensitivities over BP will not mar the meeting.

Cameron's closely-watched trip also comes amid rising skepticism among some experts and opinion formers on both sides of the Atlantic that the war in Afghanistan, where both nations are spilling blood, can be won.

The meeting, and a short press conference in the East Room of the White House, will provide a character sketch of two young leaders who are a study in political contrasts and stylistic similarities.

Obama and Cameron met at the G20 summit last month in Canada and shared a ride in the president's Marine One helicopter. They have spoken frequently on the telephone since Cameron took power in May.

The symbolism of Cameron's first White House visit is likely to offer fresh clues as to the future "special relationship" between two historic allies and the personal chemistry between the leaders.

Both men must face tough questions, with British-based BP embroiled in political rows in Washington sparked by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But the White House insisted that BP -- also a sensitive issue for Cameron, as the firm's stock is the backbone of many British pension funds, would not overshadow the talks.

"I don't think it will hamper any of our discussions," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"The president is certainly looking for BP to live up to its monetary obligations to pay the damages and the fines that it will be assessed as a result of this disaster.

"And I think that's what the prime minister has said as well."

BP is under constant White House monitoring, as it seeks to close off the underwater well that blew up in April, triggering America's worst-ever environmental disaster.

Cameron, while urging BP to live up to its responsibilities, has also said BP must be kept solvent, with its costs expected to hit billions of dollars.

"Of course we will discuss BP," Cameron told Time magazine.

"It is an important company not just for Britain, it's an important company for America as well. It employs tens of thousands of people in the US, as it does in the UK."

BP has also been drawn deeper into an escalating row over the Scottish government's release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi last year.

Several US lawmakers have demanded answers over a British report -- denied by BP -- that the oil giant lobbied for the release of Megrahi to safeguard a 2007 oil exploration deal with Libya.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to defuse the row over the weekend by telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there was no evidence linking BP to the Scottish government's decision.

Hague also stressed that Cameron's government considers the release of cancer-stricken Megrahi on compassionate grounds -- which infuriated the United States -- was a "mistake." The 1988 plane bombing killed some 270 people, most of them US citizens.

Obama and Cameron will also discuss the war in Afghanistan, with their respective publics tiring of a gruelling nine-year war exacting an increasingly bloody toll.

Obama wants to begin withdrawing US troops by July next year, while Cameron has said he wants British combat troops home within five years.

Politically, Obama and Cameron could hardly be more different. The Briton campaigned against big government, while the American led the deepest government intervention in the economy in decades.

Cameron has ordered deep, painful cuts in government spending. Obama, while speaking of the need to cut massive deficits, says cutting stimulus from the economy too soon could choke growth.

But both men are pragmatic, largely non-ideological, and see themselves as the embodiment of political change.

Cameron is the youngest British prime minister in nearly 200 years, while Obama inspired youthful legions of voters en route to the White House.

Obama and Labour's ex-prime minister Gordon Brown forged respect while battling the deepest economic crisis in decades, but they were an odd political couple.

The Conservative Party leader Cameron, a smooth political performer who brims with self-confidence, seems more on the same page as Obama.

"I find him to be a smart, dedicated, effective leader and somebody who we are going to be able to work with very effectively," Obama said of Cameron in May.

© 2010 AFP

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