British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to Washington this week, a visit anticipated with much curiosity on this side of the Atlantic — and surely on the other as well. As difficult as it must have been to follow his predecessor — Tony Blair with whom President Bush had a close personal relationship — Mr. Brown pulled off a sterling performance. His statements on Iraq and Afghanistan were steady, supportive and measured, and he indicated a deep commitment to the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain.
This approach must have been deeply welcome and reassuring to the rather embattled American president, whose recent months have been characterized by setbacks at home on immigration and whose policies abroad in the Middle East are the constant targets of attack, even when they work. Mr. Brown's outstretched hand certainly proves that at the British-government level, there is still an appreciation that the relationship with the United States is of fundamental importance for British foreign policy.
It is no secret that the close British alliance with the United States in the war on terror has been immensely controversial in Britain. In the view of many, Mr. Blair sacrificed other priorities of his prime ministership in order to show support for the United States after September 11. It has therefore been a matter of intense speculation whether his chosen successor, the former chancellor of the exchequer, would deviate from the course he had set. Meanwhile, the British Tories under the new leadership of David Cameron have taken pains to create a certain distance from the Bush White House, something that has not gone unnoticed here in Washington.
In addition, Mr. Brown was quite a blank slate as far as foreign policy goes, with few public statements to indicate where he stood. Furthermore, his appointment of former U.N. official and famous America-basher Mark Malloch Brown to a high position in the British Foreign Office also left many wondering about Mr. Brown's own inclinations. The indications from Mr. Brown's first weeks in office, however, during which a massive bombing plot was unveiled in Scotland, were that this is not someone inclined to be soft on terrorists.
In style, Mr. Brown is very different from Mr. Blair. During the Camp David press conference with Mr. Bush, he avoided the chummy banter and jostling that used to characterize the Tony Blair-George Bush press conferences. Furthermore, Mr. Brown stayed away from the personal endorsements that Mr. Bush is so fond of, the mark of someone who sees world leadership in highly personal terms.
Instead Mr. Brown focused on the tasks at hand, winning the war against terrorism, and on the foundation of the trans-Atlantic relationship. On both counts he could not have been more encouraging. For example, he said: "In Iraq, we have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep, in support of the democratically elected government, and in support of the explicit will of the international community... So we are at one in fighting the battle against terrorism, and that struggle is one that we will fight with determination and with resilience and right across the world... We are in a generation-long battle against terrorism, against al Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and this is a battle for which we can give no quarter," Mr. Brown said.
On the "relationship between the Britain and the United States," he said "Call it the 'special relationship'; call it, as Churchill did, the 'join inheritance'; call it when we meet as a form of homecoming, as President Reagan did, "The strength of this relationship... is not just built on shared problems that we have to deal with together or on the shared history, but is built... on shared values." No wonder Mr. Bush commented that "He gets it."
Now, it is also the case that Mr. Brown chose to couch his views in terms of an independent British foreign policy rather than as a subsidiary of American interests. And why wouldn't he? He is after all, Britain's prime minister, and his words will be scrutinized at home.
British papers noted approvingly that he stressed that British military estimates would determined when Britain draws down its final 5,500 troops from the Basra area of Iraq. And he avoided using the term "war on terror," calling terrorism instead a "crime against humanity." Rather than getting fixated on the word "war," let us be grateful that Mr. Brown's visit to Washington was right on the mark in substance.