WASHINGTON — Afghanistan and economic recovery may have been the preferred topics when President Obama met at the White House Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. But for the press, which got a few minutes with the two leaders at an East Room press conference, the focus was BP.
The British oil company, which is responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, is now more deeply embroiled in controversy over allegations that it lobbied the Scottish government last year to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. Allegations have resurfaced in the British press that BP wanted Mr. Megrahi freed to improve prospects for oil projects in Libya.
Mr. Megrahi was ultimately released by Scotland last August on humanitarian grounds amid much international uproar.
In a spirited response to questions about BP’s alleged role in Megrahi’s release, Prime Minister Cameron said he supported a review of all government documents to see if any additional “information” might be released publicly to further clarify the Scottish government’s decision. But he opposes a formal inquiry into the matter – something Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for over the weekend.
Cameron, on his first US visit as prime minister, noted that as leader of the opposition he had firmly opposed the decision to release Megrahi, and that he still considers it “completely wrong.” He said his government would “engage constructively” with an inquiry that Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts has said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will undertake. Most of the 270 crew and passengers killed in the 1988 airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, were American.
President Obama sought to put the issue in the broader context of what he said has been life-saving US-British counterterrorism cooperation. The “extremely strong ties between our two countries in fighting terrorism shouldn’t get lost in this debate,” he said.
Obama also noted that he stood with “a British prime minister who shares our anger” over Megrahi’s release – a remark that could be heard as a dig at former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was in office at the time of Megrahi’s release and with whom Obama had a cool relationship at best.
Clearly mindful that the Megrahi controversy only further tarnishes BP’s reputation, Cameron sought to keep the two issues of the oil leak and a terrorist’s release separate. “Let us not confuse the oil spill with the Libyan issue,” he said, noting that it is important to both the British and US economies that BP remain a “strong and stable” company.
Cameron said there was so far no evidence to suggest that BP had lobbied for Megrahi’s release, or that the Scottish government had made its decision based on BP’s efforts. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest they [in the Scottish government] were swayed by anything” from BP, he said.
But BP has acknowledged pressing for a prisoner exchange deal as far back as 2007 over its concerns that friction between the two governments was disrupting prospects for its drilling plans in Libya. And the British press was full of speculation at the time of Megrahi’s release last year that the gesture would pave the way for BP’s planned projects in Libya – projects that were said to be experiencing bureaucratic sabotage in Tripoli.
Also notable in Tuesday’s press conference was how both leaders made specific reference to the “special relationship” between the US and Britain – something some British and American pundits had speculated would not occur, as Cameron establishes his leadership legs and given Obama’s coolness to European leaders in general.
“The special relationship between our two countries will only grow stronger in the years to come,” Obama said – only to be outdone by Cameron, who first spoke of an “extremely special relationship” that he then went on to call an “essential relationship” for delivering security and prosperity.
Despite the presumed desire of both leaders to sound pragmatic, the force of history imposed itself on their comments, some experts say.
“It’s true David Cameron has promised a more hard-nosed approach to the special relationship, but at the same time he grasps the tremendous historical significance of the relations, and that came through in his comments today,” says Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Cameron even made specific reference to the “emotional” ties between the two countries, something Mr. Gardiner said should surprise no one.
“The relationship cannot be separated from the special history the US and the UK share,” Gardiner says. “It’s not an intellectual endeavor, but really a partnership between two great countries that share history, heritage, and culture.”