WASHINGTON — Newly appointed British Foreign Secretary William Hague wants to set a different tone in Britain’s relationship with Washington in the first foreign visit of his tenure.
Hague will seek to reassure the Obama administration in a meeting Friday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that London’s new coalition government is firmly committed to the war in Afghanistan despite some unease expressed by the country’s new leaders.
But Hague and new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron are already trying to demonstrate to the British public their independence from Washington. They are eager to distinguish themselves from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was ridiculed as “Bush’s poodle” after joining the unpopular war in Iraq.
“David Cameron and I have always said we want a solid but not slavish relationship with the United States,” Hague said this week, adding that ties with Washington are of “huge importance.”
The discussions with Clinton and other administration officials are likely to focus on Afghanistan. Cameron had previously suggested he’d withdraw British troops by 2015. Deputy leader Nick Clegg has described his party, the Liberal Democrats, as a “critical supporter” of the mission.
Hague said Wednesday that Britain’s force of about 10,000 troops, mainly based in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, would stay until “their job is done.”
“We will take stock together, but we are not looking here at setting artificial deadlines, arbitrary deadlines, a date of withdrawal,” he told the BBC.
But the new foreign policy chief suggested Britain is eager to see more progress on training Afghan soldiers and police, hoping they can take up security duties and allow British soldiers to leave.
“Of course, we want to speed that up in any way that we can, that is why Britain is doing so much to help train the Afghan security forces themselves,” he said.
Cameron has previously offered only equivocal backing for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “I think at his best he can do good things, but we have to be very clear about the need to cut out corruption,” Cameron told The Economist magazine in March.
There may also be a tough message for Clinton over Britain’s stance on the contested Falkland Islands. Cameron has criticized Clinton’s attempted recently to facilitate talks between London and Buenos Aires about the issue.
Argentina and Britain went to war in 1982 over the islands, which are claimed by Buenos Aires. The islands have been British territory since the early 1800s.
The two countries have been caught in a new spat over the exploitation of vast energy reserves beneath waters in the South Atlantic.
Clinton said the United States was willing to be a go-between, a move that angered some in Britain.
“I think it was disappointing, frankly, but I’ve always said the special relationship should be a frank and a candid one,” Cameron said.