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President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron confronted complex security debates over Afghanistan, Libya and economic growth Wednesday on a day of diplomacy amid testing times for the two allies.
Midway through his six-day, four-country European tour, Obama held private meetings at the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street with Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as well as the two countries' national security teams.
Later Obama was to hold a joint press conference with Cameron and then a centerpiece address to both houses of the British Parliament at storied Westminster Hall.
The U.S. president faced a host of knotty problems to work through with his British counterpart, including troop levels in Afghanistan and disagreements over the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya. His larger mission, though, was to reassure European allies that they still are valued partners in a U.S. foreign policy that increasingly looks to Asia.
Obama turned back to grinding policy issues Wednesday after opening his European tour with two days of celebration and ceremony, first in Ireland and then Tuesday in England, where he and Michelle Obama toured Westminster Abbey and feasted at Buckingham Palace as state guests of the queen.
There were also lighter duties Wednesday, as Obama and Cameron capped their bilateral meetings by rolling up their sleeves to flip burgers at a barbecue hosted by their wives to honor the sacrifices of their militaries. Dozens of active-duty troops from the U.S. and Britain along with some spouses attended the event in the backyard of 10 Downing, underscoring a partnership just announced between the two countries to share resources to help service members and their families.
Obama's message to allies across Europe, and Britain in particular, will be that their longstanding partnerships remain the cornerstone of America's engagement with the world even as the president seeks to strengthen U.S. ties with emerging powers such as China and India.
"There is no other alliance that assumes the burdens that we assume on behalf of peace and security," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Aides said the president would stress that the relationship between the U.S. and its European allies is about more than military cooperation, and is essential to the spread of democratic values at a time when political unrest is sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa.
"We see the prospect of democracy and universal rights taking hold in the Arab world, and it fills us with confidence and a renewed commitment to an alliance based not just on interests but on values," Obama and Cameron wrote in a joint editorial published in Tuesday's edition of The Times of London.
The two leaders meet at a time of great financial strain in Europe, with countries including Britain slashing spending in order to get their deficits under control. Mindful of the deficit debate happening back home, Obama was expected to lend his support to the spirit of deficit reduction, while stopping short of supporting specific policies.
Among the most pressing issues Obama and Cameron were expected to discuss is the bombing campaign against longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. NATO has stepped up its military and diplomatic pressure on Gadhafi's regime this week in an effort to jolt the stalemated operation. The coalition launched a withering bombardment on Gadhafi's stronghold in Tripoli on Tuesday, the same day the U.S. said it would allow the Libyan rebels to open an office in Washington.
Obama has said Gadhafi's exit is inevitable. But with the campaign now in its third month, lawmakers in the U.S. and in Europe are starting to ask when that exit will come.
The U.S. took the initial lead in the campaign to protect civilians from the brutal crackdowns led by Gadhafi's forces, under the condition that NATO eventually would take over the operation, with the U.S. providing support. Now some British lawmakers say Britain and France have shouldered an unfair burden in the campaign and are calling on the U.S. to deploy additional planes to increase the pace of airstrikes.
The White House, however, said it has no plans to increase its footprint in the Libya mission.
"The things that we're doing in support of the mission continue to be very important to its success," Rhodes said. "We believe that that's totally in line with the understandings that we've had with our allies throughout this effort."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday: "I make no criticism of the U.S. They are looking to allies to do a lot of this ourselves as well, but I don't think they should be faulted for that," Hague told BBC radio.
The White House said Obama would discuss with Cameron ways the international community can boost its support for the Libyan opposition, including funneling them money from frozen Gadhafi assets. There is also keen interest in Britain over U.S. plans to withdraw forces in Afghanistan. Obama is expected to announce the first phase of the withdrawal within weeks, and British military officials have said they will support whatever decision Obama makes. Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, second only to the 100,000 U.S. forces there.
Obama began his two-day stop in London with a grand royal welcome from Queen Elizabeth II. The president and his wife, Michelle, were greeted in an elaborate arrival ceremony at Buckingham Palace and toasted at a lavish banquet held in their honor.
The Obamas are staying at the palace while in London as guests of the queen, who is said to have taken a liking to the American couple.
From England Obama will travel Thursday to France for an economic summit, before ending his trip in Poland. He returns to Washington Saturday night, and on Sunday heads to Missouri to view damage from the devastating tornadoes there.
This program aired on May 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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