CAMP DAVID, Maryland (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Sunday prepared to host British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for their first meeting since Brown took office, with talks to focus on the Iraq war, Iran’s nuclear program and the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Speculation has been rife that a cooling in the “special relationship” between Washington and London was likely after Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, stepped down last month.
Brown, who arrived in Washington on Sunday afternoon and was to dine with Bush later at Camp David, is eager to distance himself from the label of “America’s poodle” that the British press gave to Blair, whose closeness with U.S. president was unpopular with the British public.
But ahead of the two-day meeting at the mountaintop presidential retreat in Maryland, both U.S. and British officials have tried to play down the idea that the transatlantic bonds might weaken.
“When George W. Bush came to office, people said, how can there possibly be a close relationship, concerning how close Tony Blair was to (former U.S. President) Bill Clinton?” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters last week.
“The things that draw the Americans and Brits together are the personalities of their leaders, but also deep affection and shared interests between the two nations,” Snow added.
Previewing the discussions, Snow said Bush and Brown would discuss the Middle East and Darfur. “They certainly will talk about Iraq. They will talk about the broader war on terror.”
In a statement released before his departure, Brown insisted on the need for strong British relations with the United States.
“I have always been an Atlanticist and a great admirer of the American spirit of enterprise and national purpose ... As prime minister, I want to do more to strengthen even further our relationship with the U.S.,” he said.
Reports in the British media have speculated that Brown might unveil a plan for a pullout of British troops from southern Iraq, where they are providing security.
The Sunday Times reported that Simon McDonald, Brown’s chief foreign policy adviser, had sounded out U.S. foreign policy experts on the possibility of an early British withdrawal.
But Brown’s spokesman told reporters that Brown would not announce such a plan. In his briefing, the spokesman barely mentioned Iraq, the issue that contributed to the early resignation of Blair last month.
A topic for the talks will be the effort to revive the Doha round of world trade talks, which collapsed in June, the British spokesman said.
“All world leaders need to give these talks top priority in the coming months if a deal is to be done in the autumn,” the spokesman said.
Brown also believes the world must do more on Darfur, which he sees as the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, the spokesman said.
Bush and Brown were to hold a news conference on Monday. After that, the prime minister will travel to New York for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Brown will also deliver a speech at the United Nations.
The new British prime minister raised eyebrows by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy before meeting Bush.
Mark Malloch Brown, a former U.N. official who has a junior post with Brown, said this month that Britain would no longer be “joined together at the hip” with the United States.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft