Obamas arrive in London to restore special to 'special relationship'

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

LONDON — Fresh from a triumphant stop in Ireland, President Barack Obama will kick off a visit to London on Tuesday looking to put the "special" back in the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth will fete first lady Michelle Obama and him with all the pomp of an official state visit Tuesday, and they'll stay overnight in Buckingham Palace. Obama also will huddle with Prime Minister David Cameron, unveil a new U.S.-U.K. security partnership and on Wednesday become the first U.S. president to address a joint session of Parliament in historic Westminster Hall.

Overall, Obama is out to make up for a rocky start to this relationship on both sides of the pond. Some actions upset Americans, such as British firm BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, as well as the British release of a Libyan terrorist who'd killed Americans in a 1988 plane bombing over Scotland. Some of Obama's faux pas rankled the British, such as his removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

"Last year was a very bumpy year," said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center. "This is in part a way to bring back the special bonds of this relationship."

Queen Elizabeth will greet the Obamas at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning, and later they'll be toasted at a full state dinner in the palace. The Obamas arrived in London on Monday evening from Dublin, a day earlier than scheduled, because an ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano threatened to ground Air Force One in Ireland. They spent Monday night at the U.S. ambassador's residence, and were to arrive at the palace as planned Tuesday.

President Obama will see firsthand some of the royal flourish that the world witnessed weeks ago with the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the duke and duchess of Cambridge.

He'll almost certainly bring better official gifts than he did on his first visits, such as the iPod he gave the queen and the DVD set he gave then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which couldn't play on British players.

The president will find the British capital decked with huge U.S. flags alternating with British flags along the avenue that leads to the palace. The British people, usually blase about state visits — they host two a year — are excited about this one.

"Most of them do go absolutely unnoticed," said Nigel Walker, a civil servant from Salisbury, outside London. "Clearly, the president of the United States is a different kettle of fish than the president of Nigeria."

Officially, neither government will acknowledge the slightest chill in their historically close alliance.

"There's no closer ally in the world," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy White House national security adviser. "We are in absolute alignment."

"I'm not convinced," Philip Barton, the charge d'affaires of the British Embassy in Washington, said of the notion of a tense relationship. "The British media are a little bit obsessed by this subject. ... Our position is that the full spectrum of our relationship ... remains as healthy and robust as it's ever been."

The state visit will be followed by meetings between Obama and Cameron to discuss such issues as NATO's bombing in Libya and the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring.

One subject that might come up behind closed doors could be the strains that two months of Libyan bombing have exposed in the British military, where deep budget cuts have cost it the services of an aircraft carrier and trained pilots.

Also, Obama and Cameron are expected to announce the formation of a U.S.-U.K. National Security Strategy Board. Co-chaired by White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and British National Security Adviser Sir Peter Ricketts, it would coordinate the two governments' assessments of threats from terrorists and rogue nations, developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the rapid changes that are sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

On Monday, Obama started his six-day trip to Europe with a sentimental visit to Ireland, including the small village of a distant ancestor, where he was cheered by thousands who'd waited more than three hours in a cold rain to see him.

"What a thrill it is to be here," the president said in the village of Moneygall, outside Dublin.

It was his first visit to the one-stoplight town of about 300, once home to his great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, who emigrated to the United States in 1850.

If Obama's Irish heritage is less prominent than that of such predecessors as John F. Kennedy, it didn't matter to the thousands who lined the road to see their new favorite son.

"Oh, my God, he's coming," a woman in the crowd shrieked as Obama made his way to greet well-wishers standing 15-deep along the road.

"He held my hand, he pulled me towards him and kissed my check. I'm not gonna wash that cheek for a lifetime. And my husband isn't getting near it, either," said Anne Maher, a teacher.

Stopping in a pub, Obama met a distant cousin and found a shrine to his campaign with bumper stickers, posters and a framed T-shirt with the president's likeness and the words "O'Bama's Irish Pub." "Yes, we can!" one man yelled out.

"You look a little like my grandfather," Obama said to one man. "We may be related to him as well. I'll have to check it out when I get back."

Posing for pictures with his wife and several locals, he joked, "We got to get a good picture with everybody. Michelle, squeeze in here. ... We got a family tree here and everything."

At the bar, he ordered a pint of Guinness, then waited for the head to settle. "You tell me when it's properly settled. I don't want to mess this up," he said. "I've been told it makes a difference who the person behind the bar is, that people are very particular who is pouring the Guinness, am I right about that?" A chorus of "yeahs" from the crowd affirmed the point.

He told of his discovery of Guinness during a refueling stopover at Shannon, Ireland, en route to Afghanistan. "It was the middle of the night, and I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than in the United States," the president said. "You're keeping all the best stuff here."

After finishing about three-quarters of his pint — his wife got what appeared to be a half-pint — Obama paid the bill.

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