The Telegraph blares the headline “Barack Obama rebuffs Gordon Brown as ‘special relationship’ sinks to new low” over a piece alleging relations have gotten frosty since the Lockerbie bomber was released. Brown says this is nonsense.
Andrew Porter, the paper’s political editor in New York:
British officials made five attempts to secure official talks with the US President and even agreed to a policy change in an attempt to land a joint appearance between the two leaders, said diplomatic sources. But the White House rebuffed the offers and Mr Brown, who had hoped to increase his popularity by appearing on his own with Mr Obama, had to settle instead for a snatched conversation with the President in a New York kitchen.
The setbacks led to fears that relations between Downing Street and the White House were at their lowest point since John Major’s frosty dealings with Bill Clinton.
It was disclosed earlier this week that Mr Brown would not hold bilateral talks with Mr Obama, despite the President hosting individual meetings with the leaders of Japan, China and Russia. Downing Street claimed that this was not unusual. However, a British diplomat told The Daily Telegraph that the White House’s refusal to meet Mr Brown had been a serious embarrassment for the Prime Minister. “It is wrong for people to say that we have been relaxed about the way things have gone,” the source said. “There were five attempts to set up a meeting and none have come off.”
The most striking example of Downing Street’s desperation to engineer a meeting was a change of policy on supplying swine flu vaccines to Africa. It aimed to match America’s commitment and was announced last week. As a result, it had been hoped that Mr Obama would agree to a joint press conference, according to a senior source. However, the meeting never happened.
The White House said that Mr Brown and Mr Obama would chair a meeting tonight about Pakistan, and would “spend all day Friday together.” However, Friday’s meeting in Pittsburgh involves the full G20 group of world leaders.
The release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, appears to have been behind the new chill in relations between Washington and London.
Speaking to BBC (which has a video) Brown quickly downplayed the report, declaring, “The special relationship has never been stronger.”
Asked about the alleged snub during an interview with NBC news on Wednesday, the prime minister said: “I met President Obama last night and we had a long talk about some of the big issues affecting us and I’ll be meeting him in Pittsburgh one to one. “But of course we’re meeting all the time. We’re both involved in all the main meetings and talk all the time. I do say that the special relationship between Britain and America is strong, it continues to strengthen and I think the reason it’s strong is that it’s based on common values. We share the same approach to issues of economic cooperation and climate change. We share the same approach to the general support of liberty, freedom and opportunity in all parts of the world. So my conversations with President Obama yesterday and in the days to come will be very important to me and I think we’ll have the perfect chance to catch up on a whole series of different issues.”
Of course, as Troy political scientist Steven Taylor points out, all signs point to Brown leaving office well before the end of Obama’s term, so their personal relationship is not fundamentally important.
Regardless, though, Brown is right: the U.S. and U.K. have a unique bond built on shared values, culture, and history that will transcend minor tiffs over specific policy issues. It’s hard to believe Obama would be so petty to still be holding a grudge over the release of the Lockerbie bombing, particularly since it was clearly a matter within Scotland’s purview rather than London’s.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.