About that Oil Spill … Welcome to Washington, Mr. Cameron
July 19, 2010
Q1: British prime minister David Cameron will visit with President Obama on July 20. What will they talk about?
A1: Prime Minister David Cameron comes to the White House with a long and daunting list of topics for discussion—each one fraught with domestic and international difficulties—while simultaneously attempting to forge a close, personal relationship with President Obama. The two leaders will discuss developments in Afghanistan, specifically the British handover to U.S. command of the Sangin region of northern Helmand Province, the site of a significant number of British casualties. Discussions may also focus on the state of the global economy (results of European bank “stress tests” are due July 23), the situation in Iran, and the Middle East peace process. However, the conversation is likely to be drawn into a larger discussion about BP on two fronts: ensuring BP cleans up, compensates, and restores the Gulf coast while maintaining the company’s solvency; and now BP’s lobbying of former UK government officials related to a Libyan prisoner transfer agreement that potentially involved the alleged release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, to Libya (BP has denied this). U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced last week an investigation into BP’s involvement in this matter in relation to its oil agreement with Libya.
Thus far, after only two months on the job and the leader of an unlikely center-right and center-left coalition, David Cameron should be given credit for making some gutsy political calls: publicly apologizing for British actions related to the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland; announcing a significant reduction in government spending as well as increasing taxes to reduce the UK’s budget deficit; determining that British forces will leave Afghanistan no later than 2015; and last, but certainly not least, politically navigating the fall-out over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In developing his personal relationship with the U.S. president, the prime minister will attempt to strike a balance between Tony Blair’s perceived subordinate, “poodle” relationship and Gordon Brown’s dour, technocratic approach. It remains to be seen if the two leaders will develop that “special” chemistry that has been historically evident between American and British leaders but appears to be somewhat elusive between President Obama and other world leaders.
Q2: How will the discussion go on Afghanistan, particularly regarding the British handover? What does this tell us about the overall state of U.S.-U.K. military relations?
A2: British defense secretary Liam Fox announced that 1,000 British troops will leave the Sangin region and redeploy to the center of the province by the end of this year. U.S. Marines, drawn from the 30,000-troop surge ordered last year by President Obama, will replace the British troops. To facilitate the transition, 300 British reserve troops will temporarily deploy to Helmand. The British have argued that the redeployment will lead to a more “coherent and equitable” distribution of military authority in Helmand, with the UK responsible for the center of the province and the United States in charge of areas to the north and south. However, the troop reconfiguration also underscores the gradual assertion of U.S. control over the Helmand campaign, illustrated by a U.S. Marine Corps general assuming overall command of operations in Helmand (a post previously occupied by the British). Some in the UK have suggested that the Sangin handover represents a British “retreat.” Appropriately, officials in both London and Washington have strongly rejected this assertion.
The Sangin handover does provide an opportunity, however, to consider the long-term implications for the U.S.-UK strategic and military relationship. The United Kingdom has long been America’s most critical military partner, and its defense relationship is one of the central pillars of the “special relationship.” However, British defense forces find themselves overstretched and lacking key equipment in Afghanistan. Facing daunting budgetary constraints (some have predicted defense budget cuts of between 10 and 15 percent over the coming years), it is appropriate to ask whether Britain can maintain the same kinds of overseas military commitments in the future as it has in the past. Should the UK military’s capacity for contingency operations be reduced further, the United States may be forced to rely more heavily on different partners to help secure its interests overseas. A weakening of American-British ability to conduct combined operations also could have adverse effects that extend beyond the bilateral relationship. So, while the American and British military effort in Afghanistan remains intact, leaders in both countries should take this opportunity to think about ways to preserve the future of this invaluable alliance.
Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior fellow and director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at CSIS.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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