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New British Prime Minister Affirms Support for Iraq War

July 30, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Gordon Brown calls on President Bush. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The leaders briefly interrupted two days of meetings with a news conference this morning set against the backdrop of Camp David.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Everybody’s wondering whether or not the prime minister and I were able to find common ground, to get along, to have a meaningful discussion, and the answer is absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: It was their first official meeting since British Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office last month, and they carefully presented a united front.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The notion of America and Britain sharing values is very important and that we have an obligation, it seems to me, to work for freedom and justice around the world. And I found a person who shares that vision and who understands the call.

GORDON BROWN, Prime Minister of Britain: Call it the special relationship. Call it, as Churchill did, the joint inheritance. Call it, when we meet, as a form of homecoming, as President Reagan did. Then you see the strength of this relationship, as I’ve said, is not just built on the shared problems that we have to deal with together or on the shared history, but is built, as President Bush has just said, on shared values.

RAY SUAREZ: Brown, who faced a terror attack at home days after he took office, said the U.K. was at one with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.

But much of the news conference was taken up by the war in Iraq. About 5,500 British troops remain in southern Iraq, where they support local security forces. More than 160 British troops have died since the 2003 invasion. The prime minister faces mounting pressure at home to break with the U.S. and quickly withdraw from Iraq.

Yesterday, London’s Sunday Times reported Brown wanted an early British pullout, but today he emphasized shared goals there.

GORDON BROWN: Our aim, like the United States, is step by step to move control to the Iraqi authorities, to the Iraqi government, and to its security forces, as progress is made.

JOURNALIST: You trusted Tony Blair not, in your phrase, to cut and run from Iraq. After your talks, do you believe you can trust Gordon Brown in the same way?

GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s no doubt in my mind that Gordon Brown understands that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the security of our own countries, that failure in Iraq would embolden extremist movements throughout the Middle East, that failure in Iraq would basically say to, you know, people sitting on the fence around the region that al-Qaida is powerful enough to drive great countries like Great Britain and America out of Iraq before the mission is done.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you talked of Afghanistan being a front line in the struggle against terror, not Iraq. Do you believe that British troops in Iraq are part of the struggle against terrorism or, as many people now believe, making that harder, not easier, to win?

GORDON BROWN: I think I described Afghanistan as the first line in the battle against the Taliban. And, of course, the Taliban in Afghanistan is what we are dealing with in the provinces for which we’ve got responsibility and doing so with some success.

There is no doubt, therefore, that al-Qaida is operating in Iraq. There is no doubt that we’ve had to take very strong measures against them. And there is no doubt that the Iraqi security forces have got to be strong enough to be able to withstand not just the violence that has been between the Sunni and the Shia population and the Sunni insurgency, but also al-Qaida itself.

Intentions to "see this through"

Alastair Campbell
Former Blair Press Secretary
[Prime Minister Gordon Brown] was a member of the war cabinet. He was instructive, he was instrumental in persuading some of our backbenchers to support the decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Brown's visit to the U.S. follows his first foreign trips to E.U. partners France and Germany. Tomorrow he'll address the U.N. General Assembly in New York, an effort to highlight his belief in multilateral diplomacy.

To assess the state of what's often called the "special relationship," we go to Alastair Campbell, press secretary to former Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1997 to 2003. He's the author of "The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries."

And James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser during the Clinton administration, he's now dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.

Alastair Campbell, today Prime Minister Brown said the United Kingdom has duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep in Iraq. Any indication of his intentions there?

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, Former British Press Secretary: I think his intentions will be, just as Tony Blair's were, would be to make sure that Britain sees this through. And I think it was -- I mean, I watched his press conference with President Bush, and I thought it was interesting and instructive that he was clearly -- particularly after some of the kind of turbulence there'd been in the Army over the last few days about suggestions of distancing -- that he was very keen to make clear that that was not going to happen.

And, look, Gordon -- people sometimes forget, because Tony Blair was the figure most closely identified with the decision to go to war in Iraq, because he was prime minister then, but Gordon has been a very, very significant figure in the Labour government right throughout its existence. He was a member of the war cabinet. He was instructive, he was instrumental in persuading some of our backbenchers to support the decision.

And I thought he really kind of set out a position there that was making clear that he's not interested in, you know, whether his relationship is exactly the same as Tony's. It's just kind of not what's about; it's about Britain and America doing the right thing together.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean Steinberg, you heard Alastair Campbell refer to Britain's intention to "see this through," but there are many possible gradations of what that phrase means, aren't there?

JAMES STEINBERG, Former Deputy National Security Adviser: I think that's right. And I think that it's interesting to watch the differences in language that the two used in talking about it, in particular the fact that Brown focused on transitioning to what he calls the overwatch brief, a kind of standing back at a distance rather than being in the middle of the fray, but also the fact that he identified Afghanistan and not Iraq as the front line against terrorism. So I think there was a lot of commonality, but there were some subtle places where we saw some differences of emphasis, if not approach.

Differences between Bush and Brown

James Stephens
Former Dep. Nat'l Security Adviser
No doubt that they share the same deep conviction about how important this is and the priority of dealing with terrorism and the importance of standing up for our values, but I did detect some differences in the overall strategy between the two.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, calling Afghanistan the central front in the war on terrorism, a small thing or something that's sort of a window into his thinking, do you think?

JAMES STEINBERG: I think we saw some of that. In his initial comments, he referred to terrorism as a crime, didn't use the same language as war as President Bush did, came back a little bit later and said, "Well, yes, it's a battle."

But there are, I think, some differences in emphasis. No doubt that they share the same deep conviction about how important this is and the priority of dealing with terrorism and the importance of standing up for our values, but I did detect some differences in the overall strategy between the two.

RAY SUAREZ: How about you, Alastair Campbell, some differences, if not huge ones, at least in emphasis?

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Possibly in terms of emphasis, but also that's partly because we are in a different position. I mean, I looked at the point that Gordon was making about moving from a combat to an overwatch situation, is indicative of the fact that those parts of Iraq where the British forces have been in control maybe things have progressed -- this not a criticism of the American forces -- but maybe things have progressed in a better direction more quickly. And so he was simply, I think, reflecting that.

I think Gordon is somebody whose understanding of and appreciation of American politics and American history goes back a long way and is very, very deep. And I was there with Tony when he had to make where the transition from Clinton to Bush, and people said there was no way he was going to be able to re-create that, there was no way he'd be able to get a close relationship with George Bush. People actually now say maybe it was too close. And, likewise, people want to be able to say that Bush-Blair will not be the same as Bush-Brown.

In the end, it is about the shared interests of the two countries. And I think they are significant enough and deep enough for them to want to do the right thing together for the long term. And when I say "see it through," that does mean that actually, at some point, both America and Britain will want to hand the place back to the Iraqis to run themselves.

Domestic pressure on Brown

Alastair Campbell
Former Blair Press Secretary
[Prime Minister Brown is] going to take every opportunity he can to make the right relationships in the short term to operate for the long term.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Alastair Campbell, a brief follow-up to what you just said. How close is too close? Both the president and the prime minister referred to this as their country's single most important bilateral relationship. But is Prime Minister Brown under some domestic pressure not to be as close to the American president as Tony Blair was?

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: There is a kind of domestic pressure, but I think that those who are, if you like, seeking to apply it know that Gordon is very, very unlikely to respond to it. And I think that it was interesting about what has happened since Gordon replaced Tony as prime minister is that we're so used to seeing our politics in Britain defined through this prism of the kind of Blair-Brown relationship and what we call the TBGBs.

And now that Tony is gone and -- I mean, Tony is the sort of person -- I mean, Jim knows this, as well -- Tony is somebody who will not be a backseat driver. He's not going to hang around and make life difficult for his successor.

So Gordon is now in a position to set out his own strategic vision, his own -- the mission of his politics, what he wants to try to use the power that he now has for the world. And I thought that it was -- what I really liked about the way Gordon presented himself today, he didn't just allow the thing to be about Iraq. He went through a whole range of issues where he now wants to use the power of his office to work with the power of George Bush's office to try to make change for the better in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean Steinberg, as someone who worked in an administration, you were very close and watched as leaders, set the tone, the tenor of their relations with their peers around the world, did Gordon Brown and George Bush make a down payment on that today, at least in a public way?

JAMES STEINBERG: Well, I think they did. I think it was very important to President Bush that the new prime minister come and reaffirm the relationship, and he did that. I think he really made clear that he was not going to cause President Bush difficulties, in terms of the centrality of the relationship. And I think that President Bush went out of the way to praise the early handling of some of the crises that the prime minister has handled.

So I think, in that sense, they did each other a good service. At the same time, as Alastair said, Prime Minister Brown really made an effort to make clear that he his own agenda, as well. There were a couple of issues that he highlighted -- the Middle East peace process and climate change -- that weren't on the list that President Bush highlighted, so there's a lot of continuity there, by the way. Those were issues that mattered to Prime Minister Blair, as well.

But I think he's made clear that the relationship is special and central, but there's going to be an agenda on the British side, as well as on the American side.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dean, when you look at the topics covered in the news conference earlier today, the president talked a lot about the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Did Prime Minister Brown come with a wider set of issues you think he wanted to put on the table?

JAMES STEINBERG: No question about it, and he made several references back to the Middle East peace process. He did in a nice way. He applauded President Bush for the new initiative, talked about how he'd be meeting with Secretary Rice, and the fact that she was there. But those are not issues that the president highlighted.

Similarly, he came back several times on the issue of climate change, referred to the agreements that President Bush had signed up to at the G-8 meeting just a few weeks ago, so, in a sense, trying to, in effect, envelope President Bush in his agenda, just as President Bush was trying to envelope Prime Minister Brown in the U.S. agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Alastair Campbell, is heading to the U.N. from Camp David more than just a question of geography?

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: I think to a great extent is a question of geography. And I can remember, we used to have these discussions every time that Tony came over to see whether it was President Clinton or subsequently President Bush, should we try and put in a visit to the U.N., as well? It makes sense simply logistically.

But I also think there is, I guess, a message there that Gordon Brown is making absolutely clear that -- I think Jim knows this very, very well -- the United Nations maybe has a more positive resonance and a more positive image in Europe and in Britain than it does here in the United States.

And he's also -- he's somebody who is -- he is the new leader of one of the P5 countries. He's somebody who is well-known for being the treasury minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, but he's now got a huge responsibility as prime minister. And he's going to take every opportunity he can to make the right relationships in the short term to operate for the long term.

Brown, Blair and New Labour

James Stephens
Former Dep. Nat'l Security Adviser
I thought it was a very skillful job of a new prime minister getting up on the height of the international stage and showing that he's got command of his brief, he knows where he wants to go.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Alastair Campbell, starting with you, let me get a quick read on the differences that President George Bush in his seventh year should understand about these two very different men, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair?

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Well, they are different in some ways, but they're also very, very similar. I mean, Tony and Gordon go back a long, long way. And they were two of the key drivers of the whole creation of New Labour, getting us from a losing party to being a winning party again, putting the economy at the heart of what we do, learning a lot of lessons from Jim's former boss, Bill Clinton, and the Democrats about campaigning, and then, in government, really taking the difficult decisions to get us in the very strong position that we're in now.

Now, they're different in terms of style. And I thought -- I was pleased actually that Gordon made no effort, in a sense, to sort of try to pretend that he was the kind of, you know, had the touchy, feely Tony Blair kind of way of doing things. It was all about substance. It was all about saying, "I'm here. I'm a very important, substantial political figure. I'm standing alongside the president of the only superpower on the planet, and I've got this agenda. I'm going to work with this guy, and I'm going to work with other people to try to take that agenda forward."

And I think what people will see in Gordon Brown, as they get to know him better, is somebody who's very serious about what he does, who thinks about it deeply, and who understands that, in the end, you've got to use power for the purpose of trying to make change. And that's what will do.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Dean Steinberg, anything briefly to add to that?

JAMES STEINBERG: Well, I think it's very clear that people have wondered how much Prime Minister Brown was going to put emphasis on the international agenda and how skilled he'd be at it. He was sort of seen as the economic or domestic guy, but he performed masterfully in that.

I think, also, even though he was going to the U.N., he sent a strong signal on Iran that he was not going to be soft on there, that he was for sanctions and prepared to be tougher on sanctions. So I thought it was a very skillful job of a new prime minister getting up on the height of the international stage and showing that he's got command of his brief, he knows where he wants to go. He values the relationship with the United States, but he also understands what his national interests are.

RAY SUAREZ: Alastair Campbell and James Steinberg, gentlemen, thank you both.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Thank you.

JAMES STEINBERG: Thank you, Ray.