President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron showed a united front on finishing the war in Afghanistan and pressing for change in Iran and Syria, seeking to consolidate international support before a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in May.
At a news conference today in the White House Rose Garden, the leaders said they reaffirmed their plans to wind down the Afghanistan war by shifting to a support role next year, with Afghans taking full responsibility in 2014. The U.S. and U.K. are the top two contributors of forces to the mission.
“We’re going to complete this mission and we’re going to do it responsibly,” Obama said, after the leaders met in the Oval Office. The “next phase of the transition” will be determined at May’s NATO summit in Chicago, he said. “I don’t anticipate at this stage that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have.”
Cameron said that “we will not give up on this mission, because Afghanistan must never again be a safe haven for al-Qaeda to launch attacks against us.” Of the U.S.-U.K. relationship, he said that “there are some countries whose alliance is a matter of convenience, but ours is a matter of conviction.”
Their comments follow the March 11 killing of least 16 Afghan civilians in an attack in which the suspected shooter was a U.S. soldier. The incident threatens to further erode tense U.S.-Afghan relations, drain remaining U.S. and European support for the war and add pressure to speed troop withdrawals ahead of the security handover now set for 2014.
‘Why We’re There’
Cameron said that “the vast majority” of terrorist plots affecting the U.K. and U.S. had been coming out of Afghanistan and the region and “that’s why we went in there -- that’s why we’re there today.
‘‘It’s not some selfish, long-term strategic interest,” he said. “It’s simply that we want Afghanistan to be able to look after its own security with its own security forces so we are safe at home.”
Obama said the nations also are “fully united” on tactics for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There is “still time and space” for diplomacy and sanctions before resorting to military action, although the window for diplomacy is “shrinking.”
“Tehran must understand that it cannot escape or evade the choice before it,” Obama said. “Meet your international obligations, or face the consequences.”
Cameron and Obama reiterated calls for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step down.
“If Assad continues, then civil war or revolution is the inevitable consequence,” Cameron said. He said the U.S. and U.K. should appeal to Russia’s “own interests” to urge it to support tougher UN Security Council action toward Syria.
“It’s not in their interest to have this bloodied, broken, brutal regime butchering people nightly on the television screens,” Cameron said.
The British leader called it an “irony” that Syrian people had long felt Russians were their “friends” while being “suspicious” of the West. “Now they can see people in the West wanting to help them” and “we need to make sure that Russia joins with that.”
Obama and Cameron sought to minimize differences in their approaches to the global economic crisis.
Cameron said “the measures we take in our domestic economies reflect different national circumstances, but we share the same goals -- delivering significant deficit reduction over the medium-term and stimulating growth.”
At an arrival ceremony for Cameron this morning, Obama said Britain is “one of our closest friends and dearest allies” whose relationship with the U.S. “is indispensable” for security and prosperity.
Cameron said the U.S. and the U.K. have “the most powerful partnership for progress the world has ever seen.”
Cameron will be the guest at a formal dinner at the White House tonight.
While Obama officially welcomed Cameron to the White House this morning, their visit began yesterday, when they traveled on Air Force One to Ohio, a key swing state in this fall’s presidential election, to watch a first-round game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament.
Downing Street Hoops
At the South Lawn arrival ceremony, the two leaders exchanged light-hearted remarks, seeking to dispel any notion that the U.S.-U.K. relationship has soured in recent years. Obama said that after their trip to the NCAA basketball game last night, Cameron’s team told him “he has decided to install a hoop at 10 Downing Street.”
Both men joked that the very first visit by the British to the White House was a bit more tense.
“They really lit up the place,” Obama said, referring to the burning of the executive mansion by British troops two years into the War of 1812.
Cameron referred to “that unfortunate episode 200 years ago” and, noting current levels of White House security, said, “You’re clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time.”
Cameron will meet tomorrow in New York with business executives to talk about the global economy and their perceptions of the U.K. economy, said Peter Westmacott, the U.K.’s ambassador to Washington. The embassy didn’t release a list of those attending.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center in Washington, said Obama and Cameron need to bring a unified public message to the NATO summit.
Shaking Political Resolve
“Every death, every event, the burning of the Koran and things like that, shakes public opinion and political resolve,” she said.
The coalition’s mission has faced a new round of challenges in Afghanistan. Last week, six British soldiers were killed in an explosion, the biggest death toll in six years for British forces from a single incident. That follows the burning of Korans in Afghanistan last month by U.S. service members, which sparked also has increased tensions.