CAMP DAVID, Maryland (Reuters) - President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented a united front on Iraq and promoting Middle East peace on Monday, trying to quell suggestions of a cooling in trans-Atlantic ties.
After a spate of reports that the new British leader would seek to distance himself from Bush and withdraw from Iraq, both men were keen to show at their first meeting at the secluded presidential retreat that they could strike up a strong bond.
“Everybody’s wondering whether or not the prime minister and I were able to find common ground, to get along, to have a meaningful discussion. And the answer is absolutely,” Bush told a news conference on the grounds of Camp David.
Bush forged a close bond with Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, the U.S. president’s closest ally during the Iraq war.
By contrast, Brown, the son of a Scottish preacher, is a serious intellectual keen to avoid the tag of “Bush’s poodle” that undermined Blair in Britain. The two leaders’ personal chemistry was noticeably cooler than that enjoyed by Bush and Blair, who stepped down last month.
During the more than three hours of one-on-one meetings, Bush searched for common ground with the new British leader, noting that he had been to Scotland. Aides also described them as both big rugby fans.
Bush heaped praise on Brown, saying he was “not the dour Scotsman” portrayed in the media, rather “he’s actually the humorous Scotsman.”
When Brown bragged that six members of his cabinet were younger than 40, Bush shot back: “You must be feeling damn old, then.”
Yet, Brown said little about Bush, though he stressed the two countries’ shared values.
“I’ve told President Bush that it’s in Britain’s national interest that with all our energies we work together to address all the great challenges that we face, also together,” Brown said, listing these as nuclear proliferation, climate change, global poverty, the Middle East peace process and security.
On Iran, the two agreed on the need to pursue tougher sanctions against the country over its nuclear program.
“We’re in agreement that sanctions are working and the next stage we are ready to move towards is to toughen the sanctions with a further U.N. resolution,” Brown said.
Brown gave no promises on how long Britain would keep its 5,000 troops in Iraq.
“The prime minister was very careful not to say much about the war in Iraq. I thought he really pulled away from that,” said William Keylor, professor of international relations at Boston University.
Britain has already handed over security control to Iraqi forces in three of the provinces it was responsible for and Brown said it intends to do the same in the fourth province, Basra, but the decision would be based on military advice.
The head of the British military said last week Britain should be in a position to hand over control of Basra to Iraqi forces by year-end, and a British government source said Brown’s comment did not mark an acceleration of the schedule.
Britain’s decision would also take account of a report due in mid-September by the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on attempts to quell unrelenting sectarian violence, the source said.
Bush appeared unconcerned at the prospect of British forces withdrawing. “There is no doubt in my mind that Gordon Brown understands that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the security of our own countries,” he said.
Bush also said they were optimistic World Trade Organization members can reach a long-sought deal in the Doha round of talks that collapsed in June. “Gordon Brown brought some interesting suggestions on the way forward,” Bush said.
Brown later stopped by the U.S. Capitol and told Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress that U.S.-British relations were “not only strong, but strengthening.”
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Susan Cornwell.