WASHINGTON — President Bush and the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, sought to display unity Monday but some cracks appeared to divide the two in ways that never surfaced when Tony Blair led Great Britain.
Bush and Brown essentially sang from the same page on Iraq, Iran and Darfur. But their smiles and mild joshing after their first meeting at Camp David couldn't hide some differences that could prove to be significant over time.
Brown, for example, initially called Afghanistan "the front line against terrorism," seemingly contradicting Bush's assertion that Iraq is the front line. When Brown was asked during a post-meeting news conference about this view, he tried to move slightly toward Bush, noting that "al Qaida is operating in Iraq. There is no doubt that we've had to take very strong measures against them."
Still, Brown's initial remark seemed intended for consumption back in Great Britain and Europe.
"Most (European) people really believe that Afghanistan is the real test in the war on terror because of the extent to which it was endorsed by the United Nations, by NATO and by the European Union," said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. "It's easier to sell Afghanistan in the U.K. instead of Iraq."
Similarly, while maintaining that he shares the U.S. view that there are "duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep" in Iraq, Brown stressed that British troops already have secured three provinces and intend to move to "overwatch" responsibility of a fourth as soon as his commanders there give him the word. That's a much less engaged posture than U.S. forces are taking, and closer to leaving.
"It's a hint," Serfaty said. "There's nothing for Brown to gain by staying (in Iraq) longer, but he cannot immediately say, 'We're coming home'; he's got to wait a little bit. Brown is torn between waiting a decent amount of time and getting out before the (British) elections in 2009."
Bush and Blair were nearly hand-in-glove when it came to Iraq and terrorism. The two were so close that they joked that they shared the same brand of toothpaste. But as the British public soured on the war in Iraq, it turned against Blair for being too close to Bush, deriding him as "Bush's poodle."
Brown hopes to avoid that fate even as he works to maintain the "special relationship" that's marked the Anglo-American alliance since at least World War II.
Bush and Brown exchanged world views over meals Sunday and Monday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. At a news conference afterward, the difference in chemistry from the Blair era was unmistakable.
While both affirmed that the "special relationship" remains primary, it seems that they don't even speak the same language when it comes to terrorism. Bush routinely describes the U.S. effort as the "war on terrorism." Brown conspicuously avoided the phrase, which key members of his Labour Party dismiss as meaningless.
Brown described terrorism "as a crime" and "not a cause," another difference from Bush, and more than a semantic one. The words suggest differences in scale of response. In 2004, Bush rhetorically attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for wanting to treat terrorist acts as law-enforcement matters rather than requiring military responses.
There were few or no references to each other by first names, as Bush and Blair typically did. Instead, Bush and his new British partner stood at their respective lecterns and offered each other kind words.
Bush called Brown a man of great strength who's persevered through the death of a prematurely born daughter in 2002 and the diagnosis of his young son, James, with cystic fibrosis last year.
As a leader, Bush said, Brown is a "glass half-full guy" who sees a problem and says "let's work together to solve it." With a mischievous glint in his eye, Bush teased reporters that Brown didn't match his press clips.
"He's not the dour Scotsman that you described him, or the awkward Scotsman; he's actually the humorous Scotsman," he said.
Brown, the son of a Scottish preacher, said he figured that Bush had developed an insight into the Scots' psyche by having sat through a Presbyterian church service in Scotland at age 14 and not understanding "a word of what the minister was actually saying.
"So I think you came to a better understanding of the Scottish contribution to the United Kingdom from that."