- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In their first White House meeting, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron presented a united front Tuesday on issues of global security and the war in Afghanistan, while the new British leader walked a fine line on U.S. criticism of London-based oil giant BP and of Scotland’s release of the Lockerbie bomber.

The two men, who shared compliments and intermittent laughs as they addressed reporters in the East Room, praised recent progress in Afghanistan and reaffirmed their commitment in the war-ravaged country. After the U.S., Britian is the largest contributor of troops there.

They also echoed each other in calling for the start of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians and had tough words for the Iranian government over its suspected nuclear programs. On the domestic front, stressed that both their countries must take major steps to reduce deficits.

But it was with respect to the energy giant once known as British Petroleum that things were touchy. Mr. Obama didn’t mention the embattled firm in his opening remarks, but Mr. Cameron addressed controversies surrounding the company head-on, telling his American listeners he understands the outrage aimed at the company—  a pillar of the British corporate community — over the massive Gulf oil spill.

“I completely understand the anger that exists right across America. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe for the environment, for the fishing industry, for tourism. I’ve been absolutely clear about that,” he said. “Equally of course, BP is an important company to both the British and the American economies. Thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic depend on it. So it’s in the interest of both our countries, as we agreed, that it remains a strong and stable company for the future.”

Mr. Cameron, who took office in May, then turned to new questions surrounding BP’s role in the Scottish government’s decision last year to release Libyan terrorist Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from jail out of “compassion” after he was diagnosed with cancer while serving time in jail for bombing a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people — mostly Americans. The Libyan received a hero’s welcome on his return home and there are reports that al-Megrahi is not as sick as originally reported.

Blasting the Scottish government’s decision, Mr. Cameron nevertheless warned against conflating anger over the oil spill with outrage over al-Megrahi’s release. Several U.S. lawmakers have called for an investigation into whether BP pushed the government to release the bomber in hopes of obtaining access to Libyan oil fields.

Mr. Cameron told reporters that he hasn’t “seen anything to suggest” a link. But he said he has ordered his government to review documents released to the public on the decision to determine whether any additional materials should be published to shed light on the case.

“But in terms of an inquiry, I’m not currently minded that we need to have a U.K.-based inquiry on this, partly for this reason: I don’t need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision,” he said.

He also said his government was cooperating with the U.S. Senate as it prepares for a hearing on the matter.

For his part, Mr. Obama condemned the Lockerbie release and said he supports finding out new information is there is any.

“The key thing to understand here is that we’ve got a British prime minister who shares our anger over the decision, who also objects to how it played out. And so I’m fully supportive of Prime Minister Cameron’s efforts to gain a better understanding of it, to clarify it,” he said.