July 20 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron began discussions at the White House today with the U.S. focused on the next steps in Afghanistan amid waning public support for the war.
Also on the agenda is London-based BP Plc, which has been a focus of anger in the U.S. over the leak from its well in the Gulf of Mexico. Cameron brings a message that BP, Europe’s second-largest energy company by market value, needs to survive to fulfill its promise to compensate U.S. victims of the spill.
While the two leaders planned to include discussion about the global economy, the Middle East peace process and Iran, “Afghanistan is probably first and foremost on our list” of topics, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.
“The president has, on a number of occasions, laid out why what he’s doing in Afghanistan is in our national security interests,” he said. “We will continue to make that case.”
The U.K. is the second-largest contributor to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan after the U.S. Cameron has said he would like all British troops to leave Afghanistan before the next general election, scheduled for 2015. Obama has vowed to start drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011 and turning over more security responsibility to the Afghans, depending on conditions.
As the two leaders meet, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague are in Kabul at an international conference of donors working to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the group that he is “determined our Afghan forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014.”
Obama’s focus is “taking stock of where we are, what needs to be done and how best to accomplish that,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
Obama and Cameron also will talk about Pakistan and “the efforts to support Pakistan as it takes on the terrorists along the Afghanistan border,” Hammer said.
Support for the war is waning in both Britain and the U.S. Almost 6 in 10 respondents in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted July 9-12 said Afghanistan is a lost cause. A YouGov Plc poll last month found 25 percent of adults in Britain want all troops to be withdrawn immediately, with another 42 percent saying most soldiers should be pulled out soon and the rest within the next year or so.
BP has become a point of friction between the two nations since the April 20 blowout of company well in the gulf killed 11 rig workers and caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
Cameron, who met BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg July 16, indicated he’ll emphasize that the company must remain viable. “Of course BP has got to do everything necessary to cap the oil well, to clean up the spill, to pay compensation,” the prime minister told National Public Radio in Washington this morning. “I have met with BP and I know they want to do that and will do that.”
The company has lost 40 percent of its value since the leak began. It has suspended dividend payments and agreed to put $20 billion into an independently administered fund to pay economic damage claims related to the spill.
In addition to concern over the oil leak, a group of U.S. senators is questioning whether there were links between BP’s interests in drilling for oil in Libya and the 2009 release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. Gibbs said “this issue will come up” in the meeting with Cameron.
Al-Megrahi was freed by Scotland, which has an independent justice system, on compassionate grounds in August because he was dying of cancer. He remains alive. The Libyan was jailed in 2001 for the 1988 killing of 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.
Cameron, who opposed the release at the time, told NPR he thought al-Megrahi “should have died in jail.”
Hague wrote Clinton on July 17, saying there was no evidence BP was involved in the release. Still, Clinton wrote a letter to a group of senators pressing the issue, saying the U.S. will press Scottish and British authorities to review the circumstances of al-Megrahi’s release to ensure it “did not represent any inappropriate action by any government or entity to skew the results,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said yesterday.
In an effort to defuse the issue, Cameron late yesterday offered to meet the senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, all Democrats.
“We plan to ask him to have the U.K. do a complete investigation and bring al-Megrahi back to justice,” Schumer said in a statement today accepting the invitation.
Cameron, while offering sympathy to the families of victims of the bombing, today fought back against the linking of BP and Al-Megrahi. “Let’s be clear about who released al-Megrahi,” he told NPR. “It was not the decision of BP, it was the decision of Scottish ministers.”
Cameron said in an interview today with ABC News that he’s asking for a review of the records in the al-Megrahi case to determine whether more information should be released to quell the controversy.
“I don’t currently think that another inquiry is the right way to go,” he told ABC. “I don’t need an inquiry to tell me what I already know, which is that it was a bad decision. "
Cameron wrote in the Wall Street Journal today that he wants to move beyond the “Kremlinology” that dogged some of his predecessors’ relations with U.S. leaders.
“I understand that we are the junior partner, just as we were in the 1940s and, indeed, in the 1980s,” Cameron wrote. “But we are a strong, self-confident country clear in our views and values, and we should behave that way.”
Cameron, who also is scheduled to meet later this week with U.S. business leaders in New York, also will be focusing on trade.
“It’s the real stimulus our economies need, and Britain is open for business -- especially to the U.S., where our close ties already deliver jobs and prosperity for both our peoples,” he wrote.
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