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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Yo, Brown' Won't Fly in U.S.-U.K. Relations

The stiff body language was more eloquent than anything the president or the prime minister actually said. It tells you that the clearest outcome from this first encounter at Camp David between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President George W. Bush is that there will be no "Yo, Brown" moments in this relationship. And if there are, Bush will find his new pal is not quite the "humorous Scotsman" he affected to discern.

Yet it is not so much the substance of U.S.-British relations that has changed, but the tone. Brown needs to distance himself from the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair -- so eager to please and in awe of U.S. power -- without walking out on the disaster in Iraq. He needs to reaffirm Britain's historic alliance with the United States while reasserting Britain's national interest. For the moment, he is relying on declarations of Atlanticist faith and finely calibrated ambiguity. This is a tricky mix.

Calculated ambiguity is a difficult tactic that requires a very sure grasp of both the fixed geography and the political swirl of geopolitics. Brown risks confusing his audience on both sides of the Atlantic.

Brown's trip to the United States was preceded by comments by subordinates that were either deniable or over-interpreted spin. His recasting of "the special relationship" as "our single most important bilateral relationship" and description of his talks with Bush as "full and frank" have already produced a thousand theses. Beyond mood music, however, decisions will soon have to be taken, notably on Iraq.

Brown has deferred any decision on British forces in southern Iraq until October, when Parliament returns, and after U.S. commanders report on the effect of their troops' "surge." He wants to move fully to an "overwatch" role after handing over the last of four provinces, Basra, to Iraqi forces -- in effect, to local Shia militias. It remains to be seen how big a step toward British withdrawal this will be.

While the prime minister is fully committed to the struggle against jihadi totalitarianism, nothing he said suggested open-ended commitment to the Bush administration's shifting goals and improvised tactics in Iraq -- nor should it.

He has put the right emphasis on the importance of the battle in Afghanistan and, above all, on politics and the battle of ideas.

Washington needs political cover for its own, eventual withdrawal from Iraq. Meanwhile, it needs British troops to protect its supply lines through southern Iraq. Both as a loyal ally and a leader of the European Union, Britain has leverage. Brown's businesslike approach, thus far, suggests he can use it.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.