Brown and Bush: Looking for Daylight

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown participate in a joint press availability at Camp David, Monday, July 30, 2007.

"He gets it," said George W. Bush of his new British counterpart Gordon Brown, following a two-hour dinner on Sunday night with the man who has replaced Tony Blair. Bush was answering his own question over whether the two governments would continue to see eye to eye — Brown, after all, has sought to distance himself from his predecessor's legacy, and faces pressure from British voters who saw Blair as more of a supplicant than a friend to the Bush administration. Even some within Brown's cabinet have telegraphed a cooling of relations. Britain and the U.S. would no longer be "joined at the hip" on foreign policy, new Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown said. And International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, in what was read as a thinly veiled rebuke of the Bush Administration, denounced unilateralism and called for an "internationalist approach" to global challenges.

Still, there were no signs of any rift as Bush and Brown held their first joint press conference, at Camp David on Monday. Quite the opposite; they were down-right chummy. Bush played the cut-up and Brown came out of his shell. The two chuckled over an inside joke about Brown's toothpaste. Bush said Brown wasn't the "dour Scotsman" he'd read about in the press. "He's a glass half full guy, not a glass half empty guy," said Bush.

On the most pressing issue of the day — Iraq — Bush and Brown appeared to be in lockstep. Both emphasized that decisions about the deployment of U.S. and British troops would be driven by reports from the field, not hometown political pressures. "In Iraq we have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep," said Brown, who emphasized that the 5,500 British soldiers there have moved from combat to "over-watch" of Iraqi forces in three of four provinces in the south of Iraq. The decision to change posture in the fourth area, Basra province, said Brown, "will be made on military advice of commanders on the ground."

What is clear, though, is that Brown is playing to distinct audiences at home and abroad, and each demands a different tune. For the moment, the White House is unfazed. "There seems to be no daylight there," says White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, when asked if the Bush Administration was concerned about a change in tone. If anything, the klieg lights on the U.S.-British relationship could mean that little will change on the surface even if there is a shift behind closed doors. "Everyone will be looking for those small signs," says the Brookings Institution's Philip Gordon, author of Allies at War, adding that Brown "will do everything he can not to reveal them."

Given the pressures he faces at home, while Brown may not contradict U.S. policies, he is unlikely to follow his predecessor's example of going out of his way to make the case for the Bush Administration. "They have to indicate that they are making a break with the Blair government that, in the eyes of many British voters, was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush Administration," says Charles Kupchan, Georgetown University professor of International Affairs and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow. Kupchan wonders how long the congeniality can last. "I think, also, there will be times that London will be openly critical of Washington; not necessarily break with Bush on substance but deliberately air its perspective."

On such central joint commitments as Iraq and Afghanistan, there is likely to be little change in policy. Brown said Monday that his government will report to Parliament on Iraq when it returns to session in October, setting the stage for a change in the posture of British troops in Basra. Will he pull out all 5,500 British troops? Unlikely. "We know we are in a common struggle and we know we have to work together, and we know we got to use all means to deal with it," said Brown. At the end of the press conference, a jovial Bush, reached over to shake Brown's hand. "Good job," said Bush.