By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — Seeking strength and persuasion in numbers, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron together laid out a case for continuing their policy in Afghanistan, an increasingly unstable war-front with fading support in both countries.
Appearing together Wednesday in the Rose Garden for Cameron’s first official visit to the United States, the leaders sought to project a unified front against calls to speed up the pace of withdrawal of forces in the face of growing violence and a weary electorate.
Cameron declared firmly that “we will not give up on this mission,” while Obama emphasized his commitment to a “steady, responsible transition process.”
“I don’t anticipate at this stage that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have,” Obama said.
Still, the careful language hinted at the internal debates about the precise pace of a planned drawdown of combat troops next year. Obama affirmed his commitment to a “robust” force through the end of the year, but repeated that force levels beyond that would be up for discussions at a NATO meeting in May.
The larger goal for each leader seemed to defend the rationale for continued engagement in Afghanistan, which some argue is only more destabilized by the presence of Western forces.
The two men spoke shortly after news spread of a possible attack on U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was visiting Afghanistan. An Afghan male in a stolen vehicle drove onto a runway ramp at a U.S. airbase in southern Afghanistan and ran from the scene in flames about the same time Panetta was landing at the base, officials said. Panetta was traveling to ease tensions roiled by a U.S. soldier’s shooting spree on civilians on Sunday.
“We have to keep reminding ourselves and everybody why we are there, what we are doing,” Cameron said. “You have to go back and remember that, you know, the vast majority of terrorist plots that were affecting people in the U.K., people in the United States, came out of that country and that region. That’s why we went in there. That’s why we’re there today.”
The leaders, both young politicians facing slouching approval ratings at home, repeatedly sought to underscore their nation’s tight diplomatic relationship, and to downplay differences, even on domestic policies.
They both professed a unified opposition in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Obama seeming to offer a firmer warning on the limits of the international community’s patience.
Iran should understand “that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking,” Obama said.
Asked on their differing approaches to handling economic crises — Cameron, a conservative, has enacted strict austerity measures while Obama has pushed stimulus — the leaders suggested that their divergent approaches were about circumstance, not ideology.
“The goals, the values, I think are the same,” Obama said.
Timed to the visit, the White House announced a series of joint initiatives and commitments that were reaffirmed, including a U.S.-British task force of veterans, scientific and health research partnerships, cooperation on cyber-security issues and G-8 initiatives aimed at reducing global poverty.
The men also made much of their close personal ties. Cameron and Obama hung out at a basketball game Tuesday night, and they joked easily during Wednesday morning’s welcoming ceremony.
Obama declared he was “chuffed to bits” to have the British leader for his first official visit, and Cameron joked about a past “visit” to the White House.
“So I am a little embarrassed, as I stand here, to think that 200 years ago my ancestors tried to burn this place down,” he said, referencing the British invasion of Washington during the War of 1812. “Now, looking around me, I can see you’ve got the place a little better defended today. You’re clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time.”